www.bangitout.com Jordan Hiller is closing in on his top 25 Essential Jewish Films…. his latest bar mitzva gem:
#13 Operation Thunderbolt
If you want to see the hand of God in Israel’s destiny and that of its people, better to watch the documentary that accompanies the Operation Thunderbolt DVD. There you will learn that in 1976 the IDF was initially powerless to even consider attempting a mission to rescue dozens of Jewish hostages, victims of an Air France hijacking and held in an old airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda. Only four years after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in a botched rescue attempt at the Munich Olympics (by German soldiers, mind you), the Knesset was unwilling to green light any mission unless sufficient intelligence was gathered to make the undertaking nearly foolproof. The problem with Entebbe was that Israel had a rocky relationship with crazed Ugan dan dictator, Idi Amin Dada, and retained no means of discovering the layout of the terminal where the hostages were held. No layout, no plan. No plan, no operation. That is until it came to light that an Israeli company had actually designed and built the terminal for the Ugandan government and that the blueprints were available in Israel for review. Okay, stop!
An Israeli company, decades before a group of Palestinian and German terrorists violently took control of a plane and inexplicably landed it in Uganda (they tried Libya first but Qaddafi sent them packing), build the terminal where Jews would one day be separated from their fellow passengers and threatened with execution. And by virtue of that wild coincidence, the eventual successful rescue of the Jewish passengers (along with the admirable French flight crew that stuck with them) was planned and executed by motivated Israeli forces. Chills run down my spine just thinking about it. Is it not the literal manifestation of the claim in Gemara Megila (13b) that God precedes the illness with the cure? Of all the contracting firms capable of building a Ugandan airport terminal, it had to go to Solel Boneh out of Israel?
Were they a reliable company? Maybe. Did they put in a competitive bid? Perhaps. Or –and I’m just playing religious fanatic here – was it the Father of a cherished but so often bullied child amazingly concocting the remedy for the child’s condition years in advance of the first symptom. It’s difficult not to be consumed by mind-numbing awe.
Menachem Golan (of famed Israeli studio Golan-Globus, producers of such American trash classics as American Ninja, Cobra, and Blood Sport ), writing and directing Operation Thunderbolt only a year after the events upon which it is based, does not seem overtly interested in God’s hand. The movie (released in Israel as Mivtsa Yonatan, in honor of Yonatan Netanyahu – Bibi’s brother – who lead and was killed during the mission), intends only to forthrightly display Israel’s precision, dedication, and muscle.
After recent debacles such as the engagement with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Gaza incursions, one may forget that there was a time when the IDF and “invincible” were pretty much synonymous. From the Six Day War onward, anything Israel tried militarily, no matter the impossible odds, was met at least from the public’s perspective with earth shattering success. The well earned arrogance of Tzahal circa 1976 is memorably evoked in the documentary where an IDF commander recalls asking a general approximately how many men will be needed for the rescue mission. The general matter-of-factly answers: That depends on whether you want us to take over the whole country or just their airport.
When the operation is carried off to near perfection and the hostages are returned home with cheering crowds and Torahs raised to greet them at Ben-Gurion, it certainly makes one nostalgic for a time when Israel’s glorious might was apparent to the world as when they stormed out of Egypt to follow God into the desert.
Golan’s movie itself follows his textbook style of filmmaking (which actually contributed significantly to the B-grade/straight to VHS action genre that exploded in America in the 1980’s). The music is ever-present and cheesily uplifting, the villains are grimacing caricatures, the sets are basic, the acting is wooden, and it appears that most of the budget went toward procuring guns, jeeps, and the capability to blow up a few fighter jets. One noticeable difference between Thunderbolt and its American counterparts is that American action heroes tend to be bigger than life and charismatic; the Israeli soldiers risking life and limb do so stoically, with an almost gloomy sense of compulsion and duty. While American heroes in cinema commonly “live for this shit,” it seems that Israeli draftees would much rather be at home, smoking a cigarette, and cutting into a fresh watermelon. It’s not from a reluctance to serve but rather a beyond their years cynicism, as if the underlying reason for the constant hostilities is a mortal drain and ten ton anchor.
The truth is though, if not for some minor (but moving) Judaic references and the fact that the events depicted actually occurred, Operation Thunderbolt would have been considered just another example of the many similar low budget action flicks produced in that distinct era. It would never have received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film or, more importantly, evolved into the Jewish summer camp/ fast day staple which it has become (along with its red blooded 1977 American version, Raid on Entebbe). Even more telling is that Golan did essentially reproduce the movie nine years later, but with a bigger budget, toning down the Jewish element and inserting a bold American theme with The Delta Force starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin.
So why all the reverence for Thunderbolt by camp activity coordinators everywhere?
It really boils down to two of those moving Jewish moments mentioned earlier. There is the extended utterly soul collapsing look that a Holocaust survivor passenger delivers to the German terrorists as they call out his name and urge him to follow his fellow Jews into a separate room. Clearly reminiscent of the selection process by Nazis in the concentration camps…and yet the survivor stares, steams, eyes bloodshot and pained, and he marches on in compliance. The scene speaks volumes about the mentality of the oppressed Jew.
The other moment is quite simply framed, but it really amounts to everything. It sums up the movie, the history and miracle of the nation of Israel, Jewish resurgence in the 20th century, the invisible hand of God, and all matters in between.
When Yonatan Netanyahu rather meekly seeks to inspire his troops before they embark on what will turn out to be his final mission, he gathers them by the plane’s portal and relates one thought.
“We are about to go rescue some people,” he plainly says, “who were attacked only because they are Israelis and because they are Jewish.” Then he adds the terrible truth that has kept Jews on their toes and watching their backs since Abraham left his father’s home in Charan.
“If we don’t go to help them and bring them home, no one else will.”
Through Entebbe we see how God’s mysterious hand works in the world. With the words of Yonatan Netanyahu we dare to presume why.