THE daring story of how thousands of beleaguered Ethiopian Jews stranded in refugee camps in Sudan were bravely smuggled to safety in Israel in the 1980s needs little extra drama. Tell that to Netflix.
The streamer’s The Red Sea Diving Resort is terribly overcooked, turning the real-life drama into a light caper like Ocean’s 11, adding cartoonish dialogue from hack superhero films and slathering the whole mess in white savior complex.
First, some background: To rescue Ethiopian Jews in inhospitable Sudan, Israeli secret service agents had the audacious plan of running an entire fake luxury beach resort as a front. Real tourists came and did yoga on the beach while the agents at night drove the Ethiopians from camps, ferried them onto dinghies and then to rescue boats, all under the noses of the Sudanese. Thrilling stuff, right?
Apparently not for writer and director Gideon Raff, who thought he needed to add cinematic meth to the story. He had a chance to make an African Argo and instead made an exploitative mess that mixes light Duran Duran-driven montages with scenes in which dozens of innocents are executed with bullets to the back of their heads.
A large part of the problem is the casting of Chris Evans as the leader of the Israeli spy ring that set up the hotel. He is most known for playing Captain America and seems not to have put aside his shield for this film.
Evans plays Ari Levinson, a maverick Mossad agent who obsessively does pullups everywhere and storms into danger like an avenging angel. His impulse to save strangers has cost him dearly — his wife and child have left him — but he won’t bend. “If we don’t do something, no one will,” he says in righteous anger.
Though we see hundred of Ethiopians, they are usually portrayed as clumps of frightened, whimpering creatures, huddled or running in wordless desperation, herded by our white Mossad agents. Only one Ethiopian has a name: Kabede, their leader, who is played by Michael Kenneth Williams, wasting his talents in this stock noble character with halting English.
Others who see their acting skills squandered include Greg Kinnear and Ben Kingsley, who is often shown pacing nervously around a situation room or screaming “Well done, chaps!”
And Alessandro Nivola, who plays one of the Mossad agents, delivers an achingly nuanced character, easily out-acting Captain America and making viewers wonder why he wasn’t cast as Levinson.
One thing we don’t need to see more of is that traditional baddie who too frequently shows up in cheesy films like this — the venal, crazy eyed, gun-toting African army general.
With the exception of Kabede, no African is portrayed as decent or honest or normal.
On the other hand, the five Mossad agents have a tendency of dramatically standing in a line on the beach, surveying their good works with wind-swept satisfaction.
Raff ignores history when he constructs his elaborate, very Hollywood ending that incredulously features Americans as last-minute rescuers.
The Sudanese army’s trucks are hurtling toward our heroes. The plane takes off without a second to spare.
So, of course, the evil general shoots his gun in the air out of frustration, Levinson triumphantly opens a sickly sweet drawing from his estranged daughter, and everyone exhales, safe at last thanks to this bearded white savior.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” someone tells him.
No, this filmmaking is crazy.