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Follow Me Shines a Light on Benjamin Netanyahu’s Heroic Late Brother

Killed at age 30 while commanding the 1976 raid on Entebbe that freed 100 hostages.

by
Julia Szabo

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June 15, 2012 - 8:59 am
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The moving new documentary Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story offers an intimate portrait of the kind of man they don’t make too many of these days. With, as the movie poster copy aptly puts it, “A Warrior’s Heart” and “A Poet’s Soul,” Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, was a fearless soldier who read verse in his downtime, and wrote lyrical letters to his family (his poetic prose, which anchors the film, is brought to life by actor Marton Csokas). Killed while commanding the 1976 raid at Entebbe Airport that freed 100 hostages, Yoni became an international hero at 30.

But if the mainstream media has its way, this important film might not get the attention it deserves. Thus far, key reviews have pretty much dismissed Follow Me as too reverential of its subject.

Writes Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times:

The life of Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, the only member of the Israeli commando force to be killed during the 1976 hostage rescue at the Entebbe airport, hardly needs a hagiographic treatment. His bravery and accomplishments speak for themselves. …

His story, though, is so well known from books, films, Web sites and more, that the directors here, Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot, would have been better served by subtlety than by excess.

Accenting the built-in drama of a bigger-than-life life was actually a smart move on the filmmakers’ part. The sad reality, in this age of reality TV, is that if legends are not kept alive through the medium of film, whether on the big or small screen, only avid history buffs are likely to find out about them. And Yoni Netanyau is a legend that more people — especially young American people — would do well to get to know.

Surprisingly, the New York Post is also lukewarm. Writes Lou Lumenick:

 Reverential to a fault, this documentary celebrates the heroism of the only Israeli officer killed during the 1976 raid on Palestinian terrorists holding 103 hostages at the terminal of the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. Yet this lofty approach doesn’t give much more than a cursory sense of what Yonathan Netanyahu was like as a person. END

Well, actually it does give more than a cursory sense, much more — it’s just that he was a bigger-than-life sort of person. So if critics are looking for the film’s subject to be ordinary, naturally they’ll be disappointed.

Reverential this film may be, but it would be difficult to find fault with a hero who died liberating hostages, a patriot whose literary skills are admired by no less than Herman Wouk, who contributed to two books of Yoni’s letters. It appears that smoking was Yoni’s only vice.

OK, so maybe it’s hard to believe that a young man could be so distinguished and yet so selfless — the pileup of Yoni’s achievements is pretty hard to believe: A leader since childhood and elected to the head of his high school’s student council at 16, blessed with movie-star good looks and an athletic physique, routinely described as “charismatic,” this paragon was so patriotic that, when his father moved the family (including Yoni’s brother Benjamin, a.ka. Bibi, now Israel’s prime minister) to Philadelphia, Yoni did not want to leave Jerusalem. Later, Yoni won a scholarship to Harvard, but struggled, in the words of his sister-in-law, “between the army and the academy,” always seeking to lead a meaningful existence.

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.

Journalist and author Julia Szabo wrote the Pets column for the Sunday New York Post, for 11 years and now pens the "Living With Dogs" column for Dogster.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetReporter1. Photo credit: Daniel Reichert
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