On June 27, 1976, two Palestinian and two West German militants boarded Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris at a stopover in Athens. Armed with handguns and grenades, the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane with its 250 passengers on board unless the pilots changed the route, with only a stop to refuel in Benghazi, Libya, to land at Entebbe airport, the principal international airport of Uganda, the unlikeliest of places.
Joined by three cohorts on the ground, the hostage takers kept 94 passengers—Israeli passport holders and other non-Israeli Jews—and the 12-member flight crew under guard in a disused terminal, threatening their lives in exchange for the release of 40 Palestinian and affiliated militants imprisoned in Israel and around a dozen prisoners jailed as terrorists, including Baader-Meinhof gang member Ulrike Meinhof, in Germany and Sweden. On July 3, after almost a week's worth of intensive debate, the Israeli government sent in 100 commandos, who freed all but four of the hostages and killed all seven hostage takers.
It's on this escalation of events, assembled into a script by Gregory Burke, that Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, the director responsible the 2014 remake of “RoboCop,” bases his latest release. Notwithstanding brief interruptions from a stark, contemporary dance ensemble piece choreographed by Ohad Naharin and performed by the Batsheva Dance Company, the action dutifully (to the point of plodding) follows the crisis as it intensifies day-by-day, shifting location between the airport and, eventually, the Cabinet of Israel.
As if the hijacking and subsequent military operation weren't enough drama, within both storylines are set up diametrically opposed viewpoints. The West German ideologues Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) disagree over the treatment of the hostages and their commitment to the mission. How does it look that German sentries are separating the hostages into two groups—Jewish and non-Jewish—and allowing the latter to get on buses to leave? Brühl does a satisfactory, if not singularly earnest, job of speculating on how Böse, plagued by second thoughts, may have handled losing control of the situation to the more personally motivated Palestinian hostage takers. As Kuhlmann, Pike's one response is a wide-eyed confusion that devolves into a psychotic break involving a long-distance call to a long-gone boyfriend on an out-of-order payphone.
The other interpersonal brouhaha is between the no-nonsense Defense Minister Shimon Peres, played by the squat but always agile Eddie Marsan, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, portrayed as elegant, diplomatic but not very cunning, at least in comparison to Peres, by Lior Ashkenazi. Eventually, Rabin stops dithering, Peres gets his way and the hostages are freed, but whether this military operation was a success is still up for debate.