Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: The Red Sea Diving Resort
In our current political climate, it’s tough sometimes to know who is good and who is bad. The more you dig, the worse things sometimes look. There are a lot of opinions on both sides about the nation of Israel, and specifically our involvement with them. And there’s a lot to look at there. But the overarching truth is, in many cases the politics of nations do not always reflect its people—and people are the ones most often caught in the political crossfire. Stories, especially film, whittle down the macro into the micro and focus on the individuals involved. For Israeli-born filmmaker Gideon Raff, he’s chosen to focus on some of the good his country did for thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Sudan back in the late 70s and early 80s in order to tell a story that reclaims some lost goodwill between humanity.
The Netflix original film The Red Sea Diving Resort is based on the true story of Ari Levinson (MCU’s Chris Evans) and his small Mossad team under the direction of the Israeli government who spent a handful of years smuggling thousands of persecuted Ethiopians across the desert and out of Sudan through an abandoned tourist resort on the coast. If you think that sounds crazy, so apparently did the shot-callers. But much like in the 2012 film Argo, crazy sometimes works.
The dramatized story ends up being fairly straightforward. Levinson uses his charm, will, and confidence to push through the idea and set up shop . . . and things don’t always go as planned. Sudan itself is plagued with corruption and violence, embodied most prominently by Colonel Ahmed (Chris Chalk) and his brigade of oppressive militants. With some ingenuity and a lot of luck, things go smoothly for a while, until they don’t. As the pressure mounts and the danger closes in, the group struggles to save as many as they can before the operation runs its inevitable course.
The film presents itself mostly as dramatic thriller, but leaves plenty of room for action and, surprisingly, comedy. Well, perhaps not all that surprising—with a subject matter this dire, you need a healthy dose of levity to keep your audience engaged, and Raff proves a deft hand as balancing the various elements into a seamless tone. The stakes are always high, but the scenes are often intimate and flow with a watchable ease.
No small part of that is due to Evans himself, whose natural movie star charisma blankets every scene. It’s a good role for him post-Endgame. Levinson is an optimistic and likable fellow, but he’s also a maverick, often flying by the seat of his pants much to the chagrin of his team and most especially his closest friend and partner, Sammy (The Art of Self Defense’s Alessandro Nivola). While we certainly cheer and admire Levinson’s jovial risk-taking, through Sammy we often see the consequences of those actions. The dynamic works well, and both actors really have a chance to explore some rich emotional territory alongside the outward dilemma.
On the other side, veteran Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) plays Kabede, a leader amongst the Jewish Ethiopians and facilitator of their exodus. Williams plays Kabede with a resolved gentleness, a man determined to save his people at all costs but also while acting as a sort of conscience to the rest of the team. He’s the man on the front lines, risking more than anyone, and refusing to leave even when things turn south. Williams’ steals the limelight in most of his scenes with his sheer sincerity, and breathes life into the on-site struggle of these poor people.
The remaining team members all feature extraordinary actors, but their characters don’t always get much to do. Ben Kingsley adds gravitas as Levinson’s superior, and Haley Bennett provides the sole major feminine presence as Rachel Reiter. It’s refreshing to see Reiter acting as a legitimate and valued member of the team without overshadowing it with a shoehorned romantic angle or as fodder for abuse or violence. Greg Kinnear also cameos as a CIA agent who somewhat reluctantly helps the operation succeed.
With the topic of refugees and immigration at the forefront of many a political discussion, it’s good to remember that there are real people, human beings, at the center of these debates. The Red Sea Diving Resort makes no secret of its perspective: that no one should be left behind, even if some sadly must be. But good people trying to do what they can to help their fellow human being is a powerful reminder of the importance of goodwill and empathy, and the price of their lack. Heavy as the subject may be, Raff and company have crafted a highly watchable and beautifully assembled film and entertains as it informs. While some of the anachronistic score and slick hi-def can sometimes pull you out of the era, the movie does an excellent job of holding your attention engaging you with its characters. If you’ve been on the fence due to perceptions of its tone or subject matter, I’d argue give it a chance. I’m willing to bet it’ll hook you, and you’ll be all the better for it.
YANG: The Spy
Continuing his exploration of covert Israeli operations of the past, writer-director Gideon Raff follows up his film The Red Sea Diving Resort with the mini-series The Spy, also for Netflix. This time, we jump back a decade or so to the 1960s to explore another true story of a Mossad spy who infiltrated the top echelon of Syria’s social and political circles, and paid the ultimate price.
Traditional funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Who Is America?) trades in the goofs for his first dramatic leading role as protagonist Eli Cohen (I assume no relation). I suppose it was only a matter of time; it’s said comedy it actually harder than drama, and therefore most comedians find the transition relatively easy. I don’t know if I necessary agree, but there are numerous examples in support. Here, Baron Cohen not only gets a chance to stretch his acting muscles but also has the opportunity to honor his own heritage (his mother was Israeli). And as a performer known for disappearing into his roles, it’s no surprise that he does an admirable job with the character as written.
If I sound cagey there it’s because for the most part, we get very little depth to who Eli really is. Most the series is spent on what he does: his recruitment, initial infiltration, and rise in stature as he befriends or ingratiates himself with the Syrian elite. But the drama is ultimately limited. For all the legitimate dangers of his work, it tends to all go rather smoothly. When things go sideways, it’s usually due to Eli’s own over-enthusiastic stupidity. Seriously, for more than a few episodes he does something bewilderingly dumb or needlessly risky. While there’s some inherent drama in that, the resolutions tend to come swiftly and the effects rarely linger. It takes a bit away from some of our connection to the character, despite Baron Cohen’s watchable performance.
When we do explore the repercussions of the job, it seems to come in one of three forms. First, we have Eli’s boundless exuberance early on. His dogged desire to be a spy is clear and not altogether healthy. Strangely enough, while there’s no question he wants to be a spy for his country, it’s not necessarily clear why. Sure, he’s a patriot, but outside of that we don’t get much motivation. And as time goes on and his resolve begins to waver, we’re not really clear what makes him continue, especially after knowing the toll it has taken on his family.
Which brings us to our second form, and to my mind the biggest strength of the series. Most spy shows concentrate almost exclusively on the spy, but here we get an in-depth look at how his absence affects those left behind. In particular, his aggrieved wife, Nadia (longtime Raff collaborator Hadar Ratzon Rotem), is left at home to care for two infant children Eli has barely ever seen. Her struggle to work, care for the kids, and hold the family together is richly developed and keenly felt, thanks in large part to Rotem’s excellent work giving a strength and resiliency to her character. Additionally, we get to see the unusual case of how Eli’s handler, Dan (The Truman Show’s Noah Emmerich), laments the need to put Eli in harm’s way while having to continue to do so. His guilt at that, as well as from his past, lead him to a strange fixation with Nadia and to some of the best and most authentic drama in the series.
Lastly, we see how living a dual life ultimately blurs the lines between Eli and his alter ego, Kamel Amin Thaabet. That early eagerness tends to wane as Kamel builds a life in Damascus, making some seemingly legitimate friendships that make the ultimate betrayal all the more intense.
Much of that deliciously dramatic tension comes through only in the last episode, where things finally come to a head. Before then, there are some worthy scenes, but much of it is told with the dryness of a military debriefing. Despite some visual splendor and top-notch acting, there’s a distance to the tale that keeps everyone at arm’s length and from the audience forming a truly emotional bond with many of the characters, Eli in particular. And given that the first scenes of the first episode give away the ultimate ending, there’s a distinct lack of curiosity about where it will all lead. Instead, it simply reinforces that same staccato movement toward a known end. Perhaps not the best structural choice.
Fans of the spy genre should enjoy the intrigue and relatively true-to-life exploits of a deeply embedded agent. Fans of Baron Cohen may enjoy seeing him in yet another immersive role, which he executes with the same dedication that’s made him a star. And fans of history will likely enjoy witnessing this small but pivotal role in Middle-Eastern relations. But on the whole, it’s not the most engaging narrative, stemming mostly from its choice to focus more on the how than the who. There are certainly some fascinating characters here, but Eli himself seems to suffer the most in terms of deeper insight. It’s a shame because it truly is a fascinating story, and I believe all the necessary pieces are there. Whether it needed the breadth of a few extra episodes or a more judicious use of the ones we have, the story is now told. I do, however, think that between both The Red Sea Diving Resort and The Spy, Gideon Raff has earned enough of my interest that I’d certainly check out a future installment should Netflix decide to offer him a Mossad trilogy.