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Documentary on Israeli soldier is fine but flawed

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FILM REVIEW: ‘Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.’ Crystal City Entertainment. 84 minutes. Unrated.

Unfolding like a Greek tragedy — where the end is known from the beginning — Follow Me flows through the childhood, romances and military life of Yoni Netanyahu, inexorably toward the climax: the Israeli raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Historical accounts, and news stories of the time, present the 1976 raid as a masterful lightning stroke. What Follow Me contributes is a background look at the cost: the governmental hand-wringing, the fast yet painstaking plans, and especially the life of Netanyahu, the raid’s only Israeli military casualty.

Yoni Netanyahu’s last photograph, a short time before the 1976 raid that took his life. (Courtesy of Netanyahu family)

It’s a fine account of a warrior-statesman who longs for private life yet constantly puts his nation’s safety above his own. It would have been even better with a fuller examination of Netanyahu’s flaws as well as his virtues.

The documentary is set to open May 18, just before Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the day in 1967 when Israel captured all of Jerusalem. The release also falls within National Jewish American Heritage Month.

Yoni is presented as a handsome, scholarly boy, born in Israel but raised in the United States. A natural leader and Israeli patriot, Yoni wins a scholarship to Harvard but finds himself called to help defend his birthland again and again.

Through his own letters, plus interviews with friends and family — including brother Benjamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel — we get a picture of a thoughtful, even poetic person who proves himself on the battlefield yet feels ill-suited for military life. Still, he serves twice, with a dedication that costs his marriage and, eventually, his life.

For alongside the biography, filmmakers Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniels build tension with periodic newsclips of Arab terrorism, such as the massacres at Ma’alot in Israel. The storylines converge in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Yoni is wounded in his left arm while fighting for the Golan Heights.

Despite his wound, he returns to active service and becomes an officer in a crack commando squad known formally as Sayeret Matkal, informally as the Unit. There he acquires a daring and decsive reputation, even leading outnumbered comrades into battle against Syrian forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

When terrorists hijack a plane to Uganda in 1976 — and they start separating Jews from other passengers — it becomes evident to Israeli leaders that they are the only ones with the will and the power to respond. And, of course, the toughest commandos — including Yoni’s squad — are called on to do it.

Follow Me benefits from extraordinary access to top Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother; President Shimon Peres; Ehud Barak, minister of defense, and Matan Vilnai, minister for home front defense. They all speak on camera, as do Yoni’s first wife Tutti and his widow Bruria.

Only occasionally does the film veer from its sentimental tone. In one spot, Yoni morosely contemplates his beloved homeland living in a constant state of war. In another, he casually mentions developing the skills of close-up fighting, such as pressing a gun against a foe’s body to muffle the shot. But there was surely more to his dark side. I doubt you’d get into an outfit like the Unit, much less become a commander, without developing a measure of ruthlessness.

The imbalance in the film may come from the lack of sources outside family, friends, military comrades and Yoni’s own letters. It would have been interesting to hear from those he helped to rescue at Entebbe. Some former classmates from Harvard might have been enlightening.

And any strong character inevitably accumulates enemies, or at least antagonists. Talking to a couple of those would have helped round out the portrait of Yoni.

Despite what another military film says, we can handle the truth.

If you want to look a little deeper, here’s the movie’s website. There’s also a tribute website just for Yoni.

James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

May 7, 2012 at 3:56 am

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