By Stephanie Merry
Friday, May 4, 2012
Around midnight on July 4, 1976, an elite team of Israeli soldiers performed a bold rescue mission, killing a group of terrorists and freeing more than 100 hostages held captive in Uganda's Entebbe Airport. The single casualty from the Israeli side was Yonatan Netanyahu, a larger-than-life poet-warrior and the subject of Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot's documentary "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story."
More than 35 years after Netanyahu's death, it's easy to fall into a game of what-ifs and contemplate what this man might have accomplished had he not been felled at the age of 30. That might be one reason the filmmakers' hero worship feels like a forgivable sin. Although the film is an enlightening and engaging journey, it trades in overt sentimentality and looks at Netanyahu's shortcomings the way a potential employee might describe his weaknesses in a job interview - he just cared too much.
Netanyahu was the eldest of three brothers, the son of a scholar and sibling of future Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was serious as a boy and remained so into adulthood, constantly feeling the pull of the opposing forces of war and academia. He was an avid reader, received a scholarship to study at Harvard and penned poetic letters, but his passion for Israel led him back to the army time and again. He ended up fighting in the Yom Kippur War, among others, and serving as commander of the special forces unit Sayeret Matkal.
His story is told through his letters and photos and by the relatives and friends who survived him. Interviewees include Yoni's brothers, his first wife, the woman he was dating when he died and Shimon Peres. The letters are especially poignant, revealing both a romantic - a man who enclosed thistle with his love missives - and a heavy-hearted soldier. In one correspondence, Yoni writes about the haunting burden of killing another man at close range. One of the most affecting moments comes when Benjamin Netanyahu describes telling his parents about his brother's death.
Yet too often the filmmakers employ auxiliary elements to create drama. Soft focus and emotional music aren't nearly as effective as the words of the people who knew Yoni. The film's nonlinear structure - moments from Yoni's final days are sprinkled throughout a narrative of his life - can feel distracting. The setup interrupts what should have been a tense lead-up to the final skirmish. Those last minutes, nevertheless, turn out to be arresting, with audio from the Entebbe operation as well as descriptions of the night from the other men on the rescue mission.
Yoni was a singular individual. He exhibited constant strength, both in will and body, and held a laser focus on the tasks at hand. He even put finding a girlfriend on his to-do list and made it happen. There is something both inspiring and tragic about his story, although it has nothing to do with camerawork or soundtracks. After all, this was a man who needed no help standing out from the crowd.
Contains discussion of death and war and footage of warfare and hostage situations. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles.