Yoni Netanyahu was the veteran Israeli commando who led the raid on the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976. He died early in that firefight, in which Israeli troops fought off terrorists and their Ugandan protectors to free over 100 passengers who had been taken there after their jet was hijacked.
Netanyahu’s place in Israeli history was assured by that heroic act and his heroic death. But he was also an avid letter writer, a soldier who wrote that “at the moment of my death,” he wanted to be able to give an account of how he’d spent his life that was worthy of his times. He lamented “the sadness of young men destined for endless war,” but never let it overshadow his overwhelming sense of duty — “I do things because they have to be done.”
And after his death, his letters made him immortal — at least in Israel. People like the novelist Herman Wouk (an ardent Zionist) and others praised these eloquent but sentimental letters home, to family, lovers and friends.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is a sympathetic and modestly compelling documentary about Yoni’s life and death. It is the tale of “someone marked for glory,” but also of a soldier with human failings, a son born in the 1940s who took up his Cornell University scholar-father’s ardent “Revisionist Zionist” cause and took up arms for their new adoptive homeland when he came of age.
“I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people,” Yoni, a very young man at the time he composed all these letters, wrote. “Any compromise will simply hasten the end.”
Marton Csokas reads Yoni’s letters in writer/producer co-director Jonathan Gruber’s film, letters that paint a picture of a man who took on great responsibility early on, and never lost that, no matter what the emotional and personal cost. Yoni was there for the Six Day War, which the movie neglects to mention was a pre-emptive strike by Israel. He fought through the Yom Kippur War a few years later. And he was the man Israel called on to mastermind the daring raid that freed the innocent from terrorists and those who backed them.
It’s a solid piece of work, though one starts to wonder about the fulsome praise heaped on these supposedly literary letters. Yes, he was obviously a bright, sensitive young man who could compose letters that spoke well of his duty, his sense of belonging and his destiny. But unless something was lost in the translation from Hebrew, this is pretty pedestrian stuff. Netanyahu wasn’t composing an Israeli “Red Badge of Courage.” He’s not the Wilfred Owen of the Yom Kippur War, creating a new “Anthem for Lost Youth.”
As biographies go, this one’s pretty close to hagiography — painting in personal details, glossing over the chinks in his armor and in Israeli history.
And it’s such an odd subject for a theatrical documentary. Movies about American soldiers aren’t commonplace. “Follow Me” feels out of place, out of time, so much so that you wonder about the motivations for making the film, and its timing.
An off-year anniversary remembrance of a casualty of a famous Israeli commando raid 36 years ago? Maybe its the implied praise-by-proxy nature of the piece — Yoni’s brother, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, talks about his sibling and benefits from Yoni’s afterglow — that makes one raise an eyebrow to it.
Then again, a faintly fawning, hawkish Israeli documentary tied to a hawkish prime minister released in the U.S. in an American election year? Probably just a coincidence.
Cast: Yoni Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, the voice of Marton Csokas
Credits: Co-directed by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot, written by Gruber. An International Film Circuit release.