True story of 1976 skyjacking of French airliner is tense, historically accurate film
By Jimmy Gillman
Unlike its well-made predecessor, Raid on Entebbe, this cinematic version of the 1976 hijacking of a French Airliner with over 100 Jewish passengers onboard by German and Palestinian terrorists has the distinction of a mostly Israeli cast and the official blessing of the Israeli government.
Filmed in two versions—one Hebrew, the other English—Operation Thunderbolt, named after the mission’s actual codename, is a more emotional take on the infamous skyjacking, focusing on the plight of the passengers, flight crew and hijackers.
While Raid on Entebbe gives audiences a broader behind the scenes look at the workings of the Israeli government and their contentious deliberations over how to respond to the crisis, director Menahem Golan’s film spends a great deal more energy on the physical and psychological abuse the victims were subjected to by their captors.
Operation Thunderbolt also shows the terrorists to be a meaner lot of thugs, a legitimate criticism of Raid on Entebbe, which portrayed the skyjackers as a relatively civil bunch. That’s not the case with Operation Thunderbolt. Klaus Kinski (as German radical Wilfried Boese) and Sybil Danning (as the sociopathic Halima) play these two terrorist leaders as extremely nasty and condescending, taken to taunting Jewish passengers with words and phrases frequently used by the Nazis, giving the film a bite its forerunner lacks.
Operation Thunderbolt achieves an almost documentary-like quality through the extensive use of official footage showing government notables such as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres coming and going, adding authenticity to the proceedings.
Lt. Colonel Yonni Netanyahu (Yehoram Gaon), the leader of the Israeli Special Forces commando unit charged with freeing the hostages after the hijacked plane finally came to rest in the African nation of Uganda, has a significantly larger role here. The man who would become an Israeli national hero is actually the star of Operation Thunderbolt and not relegated to an important, but secondary role as in Raid on Entebbe, another major difference between the two films.
Director Golan’s version also shows the greater extent to which Uganda military forces had to be contended with, another factor diminished in the first film, making clear to audiences the level of danger the rescue mission, which the film stages in appropriately tense fashion, posed to the hostages and Israeli soldiers.
Both Raid on Entebbe and Operation Thunderbolt do justice to the tragic (and heroic) events and the people involved; both are well paced films, tense and exciting. But the latter film gets slightly higher marks for the obvious passion it displays and for its willingness to cast the perpetrators as detached and evil.