Do Hostage Films Help? Part 2: Movies and Psychiatry: Exploring Hostages & Heroics


In this 2-part series, a psychiatrist explores the connections between hostage films and psychiatry.

Bluehousestudio AdobeStock

Bluehousestudio AdobeStock


In part 1 of this 2-part “Do Hostage Films Help?” series, I discussed how I recently started watching hostage films and some of my first selections. In part 2, I will share my quest for heroic hostage films with happy endings. In this search, I uncovered (mostly) uplifting releases, mostly on Izzy, with 1 notable outlier on YouTube: Raid on Entebbe (1976), starring Charles Bronson.

Raid on Entebbe turned out to be my favorite Entebbe dramatization, but not specifically because of Bronson, who was a decorated World War 2 aviator in real life, but because it details the frenzied deliberations underlying the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF’s) bold plan to free more than 100 hostages.

For instance, to make the terrorists and their Ugandan helpers believe that President Idi Amin was returning from his vacation abroad and arriving at the abandoned Ugandan airport, the Israelis painted a Mercedes-Benz black so that it resembled Amin’s distinctive vehicle. They then drove the Mercedes into the hull of their Hercules military plane before departing, with plans to drive it out of the plane and into the airport so that airport sentries would see what looked like a Ugandan-style motorcade and mistake the Israeli cavalcade for Amin’s procession.

The Israelis deliberately arrived in the dead of night, when light was low, fatigue was high, and local sentries were less likely to scrutinize stimuli. They were undeterred by the risks of landing planes without runway lights. (Some glitches tainted this plan, which overall succeeded.) The tactics used by Israeli military were pure Mission: Impossible, minus the music.

The main player in the 1976 Entebbe rescue was Yonatan Netanyahu, otherwise known as “Yoni.” That surname should sound familiar to anyone who follows current events. Yoni was both a beloved hero and a tragic figure. Importantly, he was also the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu. Yoni’s feats reportedly influenced his younger brother, Benjamin, to enter politics. A third brother became a radiologist, and later, a playwright, who wrote about Yoni.

Yoni was the only Israeli soldier to die during the intricately orchestrated Entebbe raid, which was retroactively renamed “Operation Yonathan” in his memory. Yoni was shot in the back while shepherding freed hostages to safety. Five more Israeli soldiers were wounded. One was left wheelchair bound.

Altogether, 103 hostages were saved in Entebbe, although the Ugandan soldiers who aided the terrorists perished, as did all terrorists who boarded the Tel Aviv-bound Air France flight during its Athens stopover. Another 148 non-Israeli hostages were previously separated from Jewish and Israeli passengers and routed to separate airport waiting rooms, in scenes that recollected the Nazi “selection process” at the death camps.

They were later released unharmed. The terrorists offered freedom to the pilot, Captain Bacos, and his team, but they refused, citing a responsibility to remain with their passengers. Captain Bacos subsequently received awards for his bravery.

Note that airplane hijackings were not rare in the 1970s—they occurred monthly and were favored by pro-Palestinian forces—but victories like Entebbe and even Sabena were rare indeed. The 1972 Munich massacre was a disheartening defeat—but after Entebbe, anti-Israel terrorists changed tactics, having seen that Israelis would go to great lengths to free their hostages.

According to Jonathan Freedland, who wrote for The Guardian on June 25, 2016,1 Entebbe was “the most daring rescue mission of a generation.” Freedland asks if this event helped “shape modern Israel.” Ironically, the day of the raid marked the bicentennial of America’s birth, but events at Entebbe, halfway around the world, overshadowed America’s accomplishments.

Entebbe is deemed by many to be the greatest rescue mission ever, and the IDF military maneuvers used by commandos are studied by armies worldwide. Americans who strategized the successful raid against Osama bin Laden were said to have used Entebbe as inspiration.

Eventually, more films about IDF’s rescue mission in Uganda surfaced. 7 Days in Entebbe (Padilha, 2018) had higher production value than the earlier, seat-of-the-pants, made-for-TV-movie with Bronson, but that film focuses on interpersonal relationships rather than action, per se, even though it is billed as an “action thriller.”

It highlights the fraught relationship between 2 German revolutionaries, where the more cautious man warns his female accomplice of foreseeable repercussions related to their links to Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution.”

Alas, the “ultimate” Entebbe movie, Victory at Entebbe (Chomsky, 1976), with an all-star cast that includes pre-Hannibal Lecter Anthony Hopkins, Linda Blair (of The Exorcist; Friedkin, 1973), Kirk Douglas, Theodore Bikel, Helen Hayes, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, and Richard Dreyfuss, was nowhere to be found. Similarly, the Israeli-made Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan) (Golan, 1977) was unobtainable, even though it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

It was now time to go back in time and find films about the Sabena rescue that antedated Entebbe by 4 years. Sabena, in its own way, was no less astonishing, and Nati Dinnar’s docudrama, Sabena Hijacking—My Version (2015) is indeed impressive.

The Sabena story is straightforward, even if the rescue strategy was complicated. In 1972, a Belgian passenger plane owned by the now-defunct Sabena airlines was hijacked while en route to Tel Aviv. Through elaborate ruses, all but 1 of the 90 hostages were rescued by IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit,2 which is roughly comparable to our American Delta Force.3

Twenty minutes after the plane’s takeoff from a scheduled Vienna stopover, terrorists pushed into the cockpit and took control of the aircraft, which was piloted by Captain Reginald Levy, a London-born Jew who speaks with an impeccable British accent. The head hijacker holds Levy at gunpoint, while Levy attempts to befriend the younger man and to speak about their children.

The Sabena hijackers demand the release of some 300 terrorists from Israeli jails in return for the release of the captive Sabena passengers and crew—they said that if the terrorists were not released, they would blow up the plane. In a moment of comic relief, the head hijacker demands the return of Sirhan Sirhan—Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassin—only to be told that Sirhan is serving time in an American prison, for committing an American crime, and was nowhere to be found in Israel.

On the ground, former Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (identifiable by his signature eye patch) pretends to negotiate with the terrorists but has actually been arranging a real-life commando operation. Captain Levy had sent signals of distress and asked permission to make an emergency landing in the Tel Aviv airport.

Thanks to an unexplainable lapse of judgment, the terrorists release the captain from the plane, sending him to Israeli airport headquarters to convince the Israelis of the sincerity of their threats. Captain Levy succeeds and simultaneously supplies the Israeli ground command with invaluable information about the plane’s entry points.

Armed with this information—and much more—Israeli agents sneak beneath the plane and sabotage it, ensuring that the plane could not depart. The fast-thinking captain attributes the plane’s problems to a probable, and common, mechanical failure.

He convinces the terrorists that the plane needs mechanical tweaks, performed by mechanics, so they begrudgingly agree to allow mechanics on board. Ground control instead sends Israel Defense Force (IDF) commandos, wearing white jumpsuits that make them look like mechanics. They intend to overpower the terrorists.

Before proceeding, let me disclose an unanticipated political point. Among the “mechanics” were several handsome and fit young commandos who were destined to become future heads of state. Ehud Barak, Yitzak Rabin, and Benjamin Netanyahu appear here in their younger incarnations. Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, is under Barak’s command.4

The story continues. The Israeli ground team, headed by Moshe Dayan, had promised to deliver the requested Palestinian prisoners to the plane so the prisoners as could be flown to Cairo, as demanded, along with the hostages and the crew and the hijackers. Before proceeding, the ground crew brainstorms strategies. One suggests that IDF soldiers shave their heads, don Muslim kufiyahs, and pretend to be Palestinian prisoners awaiting release.

The final plan was not that far off. IDF soldiers dressed as prisoners did indeed infiltrate the plane, taking the terrorists by surprise as they entered the cabin via emergency exits, using data provided by Captain Levy’s reconnaissance. Captain Levy was later hailed as a hero.

With more manpower on board, the IDF unit quickly disarms the terrorists and frees the hostages. In the process, 2 male terrorists die, and 2 female terrorists are arrested and then tried. Each woman received multiple life sentences, but were later released from Israeli prisons via another prisoner exchange. It was later revealed that the head hijacker had hijacked an El Al jet en route Algeria in 1968 and a Lufthansa plane headed to Yemen in 1972.5

Having completed this cliffhanger Sabena film, I concluded my “mission” to find more hostage films with the docudrama, Rescue Bus 300 (Shamir, 2018). The 1984 bus hijacking sounded tame compared with the scary mid-air operations of Sabena and Entebbe, but it was equally engaging.

That film was written, directed, and produced by Rotem Shamir, who previously gained fame for Bnei Aruba (Hostages) (2013), which was mentioned above, and for the long-lasting and improbably popular Fauda (2015). (Fauda is the No. 1 Netflix show in Lebanon and the United Arab Republic and is among the 10 most viewed Netflix shows in Qatar, Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan.)

Rescue Bus 300 (Kav 300) concluded 98% well for the 41 passengers and 1 bus driver who were held hostage on a hijacked Israeli Egged bus. The labyrinthine legal repercussions that followed the bus rescue are not shown here but could be fodder for another detective-style docudrama, albeit a less inspirational one.

In conclusion, although it is frightening to contend with sky-high hijackers and hostages, it turns out to be even more daunting to rescue subterranean hostages, sequestered in tunnels that traverse more miles than the entire London Underground. How wonderful it would be if the hostages in Gaza could be extricated as surgically as the captives from Entebbe or Sabena or Egged 300.

In the interim, we must ask ourselves if viewing docudramas about those successful events from the past allays anxiety in some patients—or if such scenes can be triggering for others, to the point that they avoid all allusions to unsettling current events.

It is unlikely that there is a “1 size fits all” approach for all, so the easiest way to proceed is to ask patients about their preferences—and to bear in mind that relieving war-related anxiety in the psychiatrists who are treating those patients is itself a worthwhile goal, since anxiety is infectious and maintaining our own equanimity during these troubled times can help assuage anxiety in our patients.

Dr Packer is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, New York.


1. Freedland J. ‘We thought this would be the end of us’: the raid on Entebbe, 40 years on. The Guardian. June 25, 2016. Accessed January 24, 2024.

2. Keinon H. Netanyahu: I pulled off her wig and demanded to know where the explosives were. The Jerusalem Post. August 13, 2015. Accessed January 24, 2024.

3. IDF Editorial Team. Sabena Flight 571 hijacking. Israel Defense Forces. October 30, 2017. Accessed January 24, 2024.

4. Kaplan Sommer A. New film on Sabena hijacking has three Israeli prime ministers feeling nostalgic. Haaretz. August 13, 2015. Accessed January 24, 2024.

5. Life hangs in balance for 22-year-old passenger of hijacked airliner Israel demands airlines tighten: May 12, 1972. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Accessed January 24, 2024.

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