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.
The 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.
Feeling 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.
Now, 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