An Israeli hero, sanctified
As a young man, Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu worried he would live a life of quiet desperation, the life of an office drone whose existence held little meaning.
Netanyahu expresses his fear in one of the many letters read with moving precision by actor Marton Csokas in the new documentary Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, codirected by Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber.
Netanyahu, who attended Cheltenham High School with his younger brother, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, never became an office drone.
He died young, at 30, having lived a wholly different life. Commander of the elite Israeli special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, Netanyahu was shot to death on July 4, 1976, in Uganda, the sole Israeli soldier killed in one of the Israel Defense Forces' most famous counterterrorist missions, Operation Entebbe. In the process, he became one of Israel's most enduring heroes.
Follow Me opens with snippets of IDF radio transmissions recorded in the immediate aftermath of the daring Entebbe mission, a carefully executed 90-minute action that had the IDF commandos rescue 102 hostages from a plane hijacked by terrorists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells. We hear as Israeli soldiers discover that Netanyahu has been shot.
The transmissions are interspersed with passages from Netanyahu's letters.
"I must feel certain that not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I've lived," Csokas reads. "I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say, 'this is what I've done.' "
It's as exhilarating and moving a film opening as you're likely to experience.
Sadly, the rest of Follow Me doesn't live up to this overture.
Pinchot and Gruber structure the film around two story arcs - a detailed account of the Entebbe action and a biographical sketch of Netanyahu from his birth in New York to his childhood in Cheltenham and his service in Israel, with testimonals from family members, friends, and formative figures in the young soldier's life.
The picture that emerges isn't of a concrete, fallible person, but of an abstraction, an otherworldly saint.
The film hammers home Netanyahu's heroic life with music so saccharine, it's hard not to wince with embarrassment. It also errs by trying so hard to steer clear of political controversies. It presents Israel's various armed conflicts and its leaders' defense policies over the years in an oddly bland and unrealistic manner that is hard to take seriously.
Follow Me does a great service by introducing viewers to Netanyahu's correspondence. Collected in a terrific volume in 1980, it's been lauded by author Herman Wouk as "possibly one of the great documents of our time."
You may prefer spending your money on the book.
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.