The events at Entebbe Airport on July 4, 1976 have passed into the realm of legend. An Israeli strike team of just 100 commandos flew over 2,500 miles to rescue over 100 hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists at the Ugandan airport. In the 90 heart-wrenching minutes of the rescue mission, seven hijackers, 45 collaborating Ugandan soldiers, three hostages and one Israeli rescuer were killed. That commander’s name was Yoni Netanyahu.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” may take up less time than the mission it culminates in, but the documentary provides some much needed human context to a tale of heroes, villains and immeasurable bravery. With unprecedented access to major players including Yoni’s soldiers from The Unit, his family, ex-wife and the politicians behind the operation, directors Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber build a portrait of a flawed man who became an unforgettable symbol of Israeli determination.
“On its own, Yoni’s story is a dramatic one,” the directors write in their statement. “But when told through his published and unpublished notes and letters—it rises to another level.”
“‘Follow Me’ is about conflict, patriotism, war, love, family, brotherhood, sacrifice and hope—all communicated in intimate detail through Yoni’s own words,” they added.
It is the words of this scholar and poet that set “Follow Me” apart from the typical one-note patriotic war documentary. Evocative letters read throughout the film provide a complexity and counterpoint to the nostalgic fandom of his peers.
"I don't want to reach a certain age, look around me, and suddenly discover that I've created nothing," a letter from Yoni reads at the start of the film. "I must feel certain that not only at the time of my death, shall I be able to account for the time that I lived, I ought to be ready in every moment of my life to confront myself and say, ‘This is what I've done.’"
Yoni’s sense of responsibility and honor is a bright thread in his short life. Transplanted back to the United States at the age of 16 and a half, Yoni rejected the "empty meaningless life" of the Philadelphian suburbs and moved back to Israel to enlist in the IDF. With his family thousands of miles away, Yoni climbed the army ranks and found himself a wife.
The tension between academics and army life marks his military career. Invited to study at Harvard, Yoni is drawn back into the army when war in the Middle East looms. Injured in the line of duty, Yoni reenlists by fooling an immigrant doctor into signing his paperwork. He doesn’t see the point in being a scholar if his country ceases to exist, so he and his young wife quarrel about the amount of time he spends in the army. They separate painfully. With the Yom Kippur war, the "harmony that characterizes a young man" is gone.
Against all odds, Yoni manages to find love again with a secretary assigned to his unit. But then terrorists hijack a plane and threaten to kill the Israeli passengers unless strategic prisoners are released.
Even when the film flashes back to Yoni’s idyllic childhood playing Maccabees and Greeks in the Israeli countryside, it never lets the viewer forget the tragic ending of the story. Returning at regular intervals to Entebbe and the crackled audio recordings of IDF transmissions frantically trying to pinpoint the status of the mission, “Follow Me” leaves no room for a classical happy ending. This makes Yoni’s tortured soul, freely bared in his letters, all the more precious.
One soldier from The Unit, the secretive corps that pulled off the rescue operation, suppresses tears as he reflects on the plane trip to Entebbe. As the group got closer to Uganda, Yoni passed through the plane, offering reassurance and support to his soldiers. The man recalls, “He believed everything would be okay.”
Lacking original footage of the operation, “Follow Me” settles for bare, dark shots of the empty airfield. Very little time is spent on the actual event, with none able to pinpoint exactly how or when Yoni died. More impactful is Benjamin Netanyahu’s reflections on receiving the call. Carefully holding himself together, Bibi says, “it was just torture” to drive over to his parents’ house and deliver the news.
If Yoni’s letters are to be believed, he didn’t regret the path he traveled. Finishing with an appropriately patriotic letter affirming Israeli peoplehood, “Follow Me” is bittersweet. Without Yoni, the hostages could have been killed, and Netanyahu may never have returned to Israel to become its prime minister. A scholar forced by circumstance to turn from books to weapons, Yoni died for his beliefs as much as his country. In “Follow Me,” the man can finally live on beside the legend.
“Follow Me” is screening in select venues in Washington DC, New York, and Florida.