Synopsis – Israel’s Mossad agents attempt to rescue Ethiopian Jewish refugees in Sudan in 1977.
My Take – True stories usually make for some interesting films, and this latest one is based on Operation Brothers, a true-life rescue efforts which involved the smuggling of Ethiopian Jews by a group of international agents from Sudan to Israel in the early 1980s.
A genius operation which undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, and became one of a number of clever ideas which helped alleviate the suffering in a part of the world most nations simply didn’t bother about.
However, despite being helmed by acclaimed director Gideon Raff (Showtime’s Homeland), the cause for concern raises as it marked its debut as a Netflix Original film. Over the years, films premiering on the streaming giant, despite some bright spots here and there like Roma, have generally earned a reputation for being watchable, but not too particularly stellar.
Unfortunately, this one too adds itself on to that list, despite delivering a great cast, along with a story that weaves many moving pieces together into a tension filled narrative. Yes, the film shares obvious similarities to 2012 Oscar-winning drama, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, and is certainly a story worthy of being told, but it only barely keeps its head above water as it leans on far too many tired cinematic conventions and tropes to be truly memorable.
Here, director Gideon Raff struggles to get an angle on the historical drama, as he blows his star budget on getting Chris Evans, and appears to assume that Captain America and an earnest story are enough to get by. And he’s probably halfway right, but the film is still a lot lighter than it really ought to be, neither brimming with the tension of impending doom, nor gripping you with exciting moments, nor affording a more in-depth character-study either.
Sure, the heist elements are ingenious, but the near-comic tone it’s afforded doesn’t balance well with the genocide going on in the background.
Set in the 1980s, the story follows Ari Levenson (Chris Evans), a Mossad agent, who along with Sammy (Alessandro Nivola), a field medic, finds himself in Ethiopia in the middle of a bloody civil war, where a lot of the innocents were being caught in the crossfire, especially minority groups. One of those groups being the Jewish community that were majorly targeted.
However, with the help of Kabede Bimro (Michael Kenneth Williams), a courageous local, Ari has been successfully getting them out of the country. However, when a recent mission goes almost wrong, his rescue efforts are shut down by the higher-ups including his direct supervisor Ethan Levin (Sir Ben Kingsley).
That is until, Ari comes up with yet another plan, which includes the purchase of The Red Sea Diving Resort, a deserted holiday retreat, in Sudan, to be used as front to smuggle thousands of refugees led by Kabede to Israel. He combines a group of operatives that include Sammy, Rachel Reiter (Haley Bennett), Jacob ‘Jake’ Wolf (Michiel Huisman), and Max Rose (Alex Hassell), and sets up a fake resort by bribing the Sudanese Tourist official.
With the plan in the motion, matters soon begin to complicate when actual tourists begin to arrive, hereby catching the attention of Col. Abdel Ahmed (Chris Chalk).
The film often feels authentic to the true story, with some brief spurts of much-needed tension as the corrupt local authorities start to get suspicious of this magical resort which has suddenly sprung back to life. And there’s no doubting the intent behind telling this story with enough proper elements to make for an entertaining true to life political/social justice type thriller.
But despite the primary plot line being, transporting a group of people from A to point B, the film lacks the depth and emotion and follows a very customary blueprint to execute the narrative. The way the film starts and ends is substantially predictable and lacks excitement on any level.
The process of introducing the characters, advancing the story-line, involving threats and other government-related issues felt generic for the most part and are nowhere near as harrowing as the likes of Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, nor as tense and sharp as Ben Affleck‘s Argo.
Director Raff obviously has some talent, but it’s very obviously in more of a long form story telling kind of arc as the supporting players in this film all felt very generic or just terribly underdeveloped in their stories and we get too quickly to the setup of the mission rather than the motivations of everyone getting there. Director Raff allows for broad strokes, but it all needed a little more nuance.
The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t feel particularly interested in the political intricacies of the situation, which went by the code name Operation Brothers, and it’s definitely not interested in presenting the perspective of the Ethiopian refugees with any psychological subtlety.
But instead, as always with these types of films where a predominantly white starring cast sets out to help nameless brown faces there’s that unavoidable “white savior” feeling. Kabede is given enough screen time to not feel like a complete afterthought, but director Raff missed the opportunity to shake the narrative further by showing Kabede’s daring rescue efforts from his perspective.
Also besides Kabede, the refugees exist primarily as props for the script to raise the stakes for Evans‘s team or to be gunned down as a way of establishing the villainous bona fides of the Sudanese soldiers.
Another thing that does feel really odd is the dissonant tone that fluctuates throughout the film. The film shifts in tone from almost jaunty, to deadly serious, to jaunty and back again. Part of this is just the nature of the film and the time, but some of it just feels like dissident editing that just didn’t quite come together or a miscommunication between actors and tone.
To add to this, it really feels like a lot of the conflict and tension was manufactured for the film rather than reality. There’s some gunfire exchanges and mass executions, but the film largely just hints at major action sequences. Given the setup and the menacing presence of the cruel Col. Abdel Ahmed seeking to stop the rescue efforts, director Raff teases action that never arrives.
Sure, one of the highlights of the film is the bizarre reality of Ari and his team having to run the resort like an actual resort when tourists arrive looking for a getaway. It’s during these sequences that the film shines, but it’s not nearly enough for the run time.
Without a doubt, the best part of the film are the performances. Chris Evans is more than good enough, and does a great job portraying the guy leading the pack and the missions with great charisma and confidence. While Haley Bennett, Michiel Huisman, Alessandro Nivola, and Alex Hassell provide great support. In smaller roles, Greg Kinnear and Ben Kingsley also manage to shine. However, both Michael K. Williams and Chris Chalk are underutilized. On the whole, ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ is a forgettable yet decent watch, which despite its subject matter, is letdown by its execution.
Directed – Gideon Raff
Rated – R
Run Time – 129 minutes