“7 Days in Entebbe” is, as its name suggests, a pretty conventional ticktock of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France jetliner en route from Tel Aviv to Paris by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Red Army Faction, a German leftist group. Or it would be conventional, were it not for the fact that the movie opens with a startling snippet of performance by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, making you wonder, for a second, whether you have stumbled into a screening of “Step Up 6″ by mistake.
The footage of the dance “Kyr,” a 1990 work by noted Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, features several dancers seated in a semicircle. Clad in the generic black suits and conservative headcoverings of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, they explode from left to right, in sequence, from their seats, throwing themselves ecstatically to their feet, as one dancer, in the middle of the group, collapses onto the floor in a heap, ruining the precision and symmetry of the arc.
And then the movie, by director José Padilha, known for his 2014 reboot of the politically charged action film “RoboCop,” begins in earnest, cutting to the hijacking, which brought more than 200 passengers, including 84 Israelis, to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. Over the course of 100 minutes or so, the fact-based drama, in reasonably gripping fashion, follows the weeklong showdown between the hijackers, including Germany’s Brigitte Kuhlmann and Wilfried Böse (Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl), and the Israeli government. Finally, after most of the hostages have been released – except for the Israelis, the crew and a few French travelers – Israel sends in a team of commandos to storm the airport.
Padilha cuts back and forth between Uganda and Israel, with occasional flashbacks to Germany, where the hijacking was planned, and Yemen, where its perpetrators received military training. Infighting – among hijackers over strategy, and between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (a marvelous Lior Ashkenazi) and Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) over whether to negotiate – lends drama to the standoff. For several days, nothing happens, as the hijackers demand that Israel and other countries release prisoners and Israel sticks to its long-standing refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Meanwhile, military action is considered, although that is fraught with risk.
Woven throughout “Entebbe” are scenes taken from rehearsals for the dance performance that opens the movie. One of the dancers (Zina Zinchenko) – the one who falls – is the girlfriend of an Israeli soldier (Ben Schnetzer) who has been recruited for the rescue operation. Although their story delivers a message – “I fight so you can dance,” he tells her, somewhat predictably – it is a minor one in the scheme of things.
Rather, the dance itself makes a much more powerful, and ultimately poetic, point. On the most superficial level, it is a blunt metaphor for the elaborate choreography of the rescue operation, which entailed its own intense rehearsals, undertaken in a scale mock-up of the Entebbe airport that had been re-created back in Israel.
“Entebbe” is, by this reading, a fairly standard glorification of Israeli military prowess. On a subtler level, the dance’s themes of conformity and deviation resonate powerfully with the movie’s true theme, which questions whether Israel’s robotic stance of nonnegotiation has been effective in the long run. If the nation never talks with its enemies, Rabin asks Peres, how can there ever be peace?
Although that question is articulated only toward the end of the film, it hangs, unspoken, over the entire movie, lending what would otherwise be a pedestrian thriller a subtle but potent punch. Over the closing credits, we watch another one of Naharin’s works, called “Last Dance,” which features one dancer, in the foreground, contorting himself in agonizingly angular gyrations as a second dancer runs in place in the background, seemingly going nowhere, but with a singular, unbroken focus.
7 Days in Entebbe
When • Opens Friday, March 16.
Where • Area theaters.
Rating • PG-13 for violence, some mature thematic material, drug use, smoking and brief strong language.
Running time • 107 minutes.