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'Operation Thunderbolt' Review: Pedestrian Terrorist Drama

Klaus Kinski, Sybil Danning in Operation Thunderbolt
Klaus Kinski, Sybil Danning, Operation Thunderbolt

Despite the complex and gripping real-life basis for Mivtsa Yonatan / Operation Thunderbolt – the 1976 hijacking of a Tel Aviv-Athens-Paris Air France flight – director-co-producer-co-scenarist Menahem Golan managed to make a film utterly devoid of suspense, depth, or intelligence. With its cheap look (despite full cooperation from the Israeli armed forces), subpar craftsmanship, and one-dimensional characters, Operation Thunderbolt is nothing more than your below-average 1970s movie-of-the-week. In fact, Operation Thunderbolt is so mediocre that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Operation Thunderbolt by Menahem GolanThe fateful story, also told in the 1976 US-made television movies Raid on Entebbe and Victory at Entebbe, begins on June 27, 1976. After takeoff from Athens, an Air France flight on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Arab and German terrorists. Following an unsuccessful attempt to keep the plane in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, the hijackers fly to the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, where they are welcomed by that country's psycho dictator, Idi Amin Dada.

Once in Entebbe, the Jewish passengers are separated from the others – the non-Jews are freed, the Jews are held in the airport as hostages. In order to release the Jewish passengers, the hijackers demand that Israel free several convicted terrorists held in that country's jails. If the Israeli government fails to meet the set deadline, the hijackers will kill all the hostages.

Sybil Danning in Operation ThunderboltFeeling pressure from the Israeli population to save the passengers, the Israeli government debates the merits and the dangers of a rescue operation. Finally, they decide on allowing an elite commando unit to raid the Entebbe airport and free the hostages.

Golan – whose Cannon Group would distribute some of the trashiest productions of the 1980s – and co-screenwriter Clarke Reynolds were apparently so busy elaborating cliché-ridden dialogue and flag-waving monologues that they made no effort to add either psychological depth to any of the characters or nuances to the political underpinnings of the crisis. Thus, Jews are either poor victims or brave warriors, while terrorists are mean, grenade-carrying people with no raison d'être and no taste in clothes or sunglasses.

Not surprisingly, with the exception of Yehoram Gaon's charismatic turn as commando leader Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (the older brother of future far-right Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), the performances come across flatter than cardboards. Even Klaus Kinski, a master scenery-chewer, is quite sedate here – and for once, I badly missed his Nosferatu fangs.

Operation ThunderboltNow, it would be naïve to expect an unbiased historical context from a film that shows the Israeli rescue commandos through deifying camera angles reminiscent of those used in The Thunderbirds or The X-Men. But it must be pointed out that such gross disregard for subtlety ends up working against the film. For even though Operation Thunderbolt is a retelling of actual events – it even boasts the appearance (via documentary footage) of several Israeli government officials – its propagandistic tone is so blatant that the uninformed viewer will keep wondering not how much, but how little of what is shown may actually have any connection to reality.

Note: A version of this Operation Thunderbolt review was initially posted in October 2004.

MIVTSA YONATAN / OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (1977). Dir.: Menahem Golan. Cast: Klaus Kinski, Yehoram Gaon, Sybil Danning, Assaf Dayan, Gila Almagor, Assaf Dayan, Mark Heath. Scr.: Menahem Golan and Clarke Reynolds

Academy Award Nomination

Best Foreign Language Film


         
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10 Comments to 'Operation Thunderbolt' Review: Pedestrian Terrorist Drama

  1. Samuel Cohen

    Very Relevaqnt in October 2016 I have DVD. Many Stars Celebs and Politicians. Exciting Doco Drama!

  2. GAZEL DEBORAH

    thanks for this beautiful movie. Where i can buy the dvd from the real version israeli and not american.
    I can't found it anywhere in france or europe .Thanks for your response of having this tape or dvd
    i loved songs, music, the atmosphere and brillant actors and actresses
    all the best for ISRAEL
    respect
    best sincerely
    deborah gazel france

  3. Don Johnson

    I was extremely disappointed by Klaus Kinski's lazy paycheck performance, as he was the only reason I even watched the film. The moral significance of the actual events that inspired the film are irrelevent at best, especially from the perspective of an American 30-somthing in 2012 who is rather sick of both the Israeli's and the Arabs oil n religion sucking us back into that dead end desert. Weve got all the God and Oil we need right here in the States, so lets keep our boys at home while the jews and arabs go at each other like dogs in the street, because nothing we say or do is gonna change a fuckin thing over there.

  4. Occams Tool

    Sorry, “moral” equivalence.

  5. Occams Tool

    Sybil, thank you for your defense of the film.

    I get tired of evenhandedness with scum. There is no maral equivalence between those who would kill old ladies and helpless civilians and those who would rescue them.

  6. Occams Tool

    Yonni Netanyahu was a hero of the first rank, a Harvard educated philosopher and warrior who led from the front and was the only soldier killed at Entebbe. Yeah, he deserved the shoot from the feet deify shot.

    I'm sorry, but terrorists are slime. Take Nidal Hassan, for example. I was hired to work at the Fort Hood Darnell Medical Center as a psychiatrist before I took my other job, so I would be dead today except for luck.

    Hasan lectured about cutting off the heads of infidels, he frequented exotic dancer bars, and he was, by all accounts, a very subpar clinician.

    Yeah, most terrorists have limited worldviews and limited fashion and behavioral sense.

  7. Andre

    Thank you for writing.

    My chief problem with “Operation Thunderbolt” was with its propagandistic tone.

    I knew the basic facts about the hijacking, but I've no idea if all the political insinuations/accusations/portrayals found in Golan and Reynolds' screenplay are true. The film's tone had me wondering. I believe a more sober, detached account of the events would have worked in the film's favor.

    By the way, cool website… (http://www.sybildanning.net/)

  8. Andre, What the f—. Know the true facts before claiming to know them. All in the movie is authentic, clothes, my glassesa, etc. Menahem Golan interview the survivors! Sybil Danning

  9. Andre

    Thanks for writing.
    Just clarifying one thing:
    This line
    “Thus, Jews are either poor victims or brave warriors, while terrorists are mean, grenade-carrying people with neither raison d'être nor taste in clothes or sunglasses.”
    only says that characters in OPERATION THUNDERBOLT are one-dimensional. That approach may work in simple thrillers, but not in political films.
    So, no, I was not trying in any way whatsoever to justify — not even “just a little, just a little bit” — hijackings, murders, mass murders (or the threat of mass murders) in any guise (including war).
    *No cause* — god(s), country, flag, freedom, family, etc etc — justifies that.

  10. tash

    Andreas makes criticises the cinematic craftsmanship of the movie, however, I differ entirely on the point, it was enjoyable and all the more so because in its essential elements the movie is factually accurate.

    A group of idealistic militants took a vessel by force, and threatened the lives of over one hundred randomly selected passengers, except for one common thread: all the passengers they earmarked for execution unless certain demands were met were of Jewish heritage.

    Andreas intimates that there is some factual context missing from the movie. He implies that the threat by these hijackers to murder these people of Jewish ancestry could somehow be justified (just a little, just a little bit, with these words:

    “Thus, Jews are either poor victims or brave warriors, while terrorists are mean, grenade-carrying people with neither raison d'être nor taste in clothes or sunglasses”.

    Therefore, if we knew a little about the “raison d'être” we could sympathise more with the threat to murder these Jews? The movie is deficient in this respect?

    I wonder, at what point can we not just draw a line and say, group punishment of innocent civilians is just wrong, treating the matter on a case by case basis.

    Andreas, if you have a moral story to tell and think you can do better, let us know when the film is finished.

    In the meantime, this was an excellent relaying of the essential events of a horrifying criminal act where astonishingly the victims were spared from harm by an decisive and bold government instructing an amazingly well-trained and organised military unit.

    True that not everything Israel does is beyond condemnation, but this is a nation of people who since World War II and prior have struggled to survive against some incredibly hostile actions. There are others who in turn have suffered at the hands of Israelis in their struggle to survive. Andreas, go and tell that story. But this one is a complete and neatly wrapped package, not too ambitious for the time and attention span of a mainstream cinema going audience.