The army won. Of Yoni and his comrades in “the Unit,” a.k.a. Sayeret Matkal, former Defense Minister Shimon Peres says, “They studied a map like their parents studied the Talmud.” Unlike Yoni, however, who had lived in Philadelphia and Boston, the majority of this elite group of soldiers had never been out of Israel until that night they flew to Uganda to rescue the hostages. There was, in the words of one Unit member interviewed for the film, “some friction.” Perhaps more cynical filmmakers could’ve amplified this, comparing Yoni to, say, the title character in The Manchurian Candidate: a privileged outsider leading a team of men very different from himself. But these filmmakers, Ari Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber, carry a torch for their subject — especially Pinchot, who named his eldest son Yoni and spent 16 years making this movie. Digging up dirt on this hero was not their goal.
“For me, this project came out of reading Yoni’s book of letters and having this kind of connection with the thoughts and feelings and conflict portrayed in the book,” Pinchot says:
It was just on the bookshelf in my family home, and I ended up leafing through it. You just don’t come across people like Yoni very often, and I was always a fan of military stories, of people who did remarkable things on a military basis, mostly because I think it’s amazing that people have that kind of courage to push their fears aside and do something for a greater good. The introspection and honesty and conflict that came out of his letters, how he struggled to keep his soul alive — I felt like that’s the kind of hero that we should be sharing with people in the 21st century. I have four kids, and they are constantly being bombarded by a culture of self-absorption and people who are really just looking out for themselves, their careers, making money, what can I get, how many things can I own. I felt like Yoni’s story really does show you the other side — he had every reason to be selfish in terms of his intelligence, his athletic ability, his great looks. And yet he wasn’t; he had a higher cause.”
As for the film’s lukewarm critical reception, “We didn’t make the movie for critics, we made it for the audiences,” Gruber says:
We’re sharing things about Yoni’s life that have never been spoken about before. Some critics take it as hero worship and hagiography, and that’s surprising because when you make a film about a person it’s usually because on some level you admire what they’ve done. Certainly, it’s a positive portrayal, but I don’t think we’re telling a story that’s purely positive. And the reaction from audiences has been remarkable — the emotions people feel, their strong reactions, are so gratifying.
For maximum educational impact, the filmmakers hope to do something very unfilmmaker-like: get their movie out there on television as soon as possible. “This film wasn’t made to be a moneymaker — it was made to tell an important story,” Gruber says, “and to give a deeper understanding of the situation in Israel.”
Perhaps the MSM’s real problem with Follow Me is that the film spotlights the difficult, politically unfashionable reality of Israel’s ongoing fight for survival in a way that — like it or not — grabs and holds the viewer. Audiences hear and see Israel’s prime minister speaking not as an impersonal talking head, but as Yoni’s admiring brother and their parents’ devoted son, and it’s hard not to get choked up. How uncomfortable, and inconvenient!
So the movie is dismissed with critical reviews that will doubtless discourage people from seeing Follow Me, or from asking their local movie theaters to screen it. And as a result, many young people will miss the chance to become acquainted with a real-life role model who put the safety of his country ahead of his own.
“The world is full of beauty, and the ugliness in it only highlights that beauty,” Yoni wrote. Here’s hoping moviegoers will disregard the reviews they read and see the beauty of Follow Me. Learn more about the film, including current and upcoming play dates, here.