This is a film I was anxiously anticipating since it was based on an amazing – and true – story. Israeli Mossad agents operated a diving resort in Sudan for three years as a front operation while they whisked Ethiopian Jews out of danger and into Israel.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort” is directed by Gideon Raff (“Homeland”), with a solid acting cast including Chris Evans (“Captain America”), Haley Bennett, Michael Huisman, Michael K. Williams, Ben Kingsley, and Greg Kinnear.
During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Sudan was very hostile to the state of Israel. Earlier, in Khartoum in 1967, the Arab League resolved “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it,” the famous Three Nos. Any operation by Mossad would have to have the agents in the cover of Europeans trying to run this resort.
The actual story was incredible in itself. The problem is when Hollywood decides to bring an astonishing story to the screen, it sometimes has the tendency to go over the top and turn these stories into cliché-laden, cinematic hero film fests. The director, Raff, fell into this trap.
The temptation to turn Evans’ Ari into Captain America was too great. While we get it, if you are going to run a diving resort, you should look like a guy who’d be at home in Coronado or Key West, which Evans does, but the way his character is introduced was already a harbinger of things to come. Ari is doing push-ups (good ones) in the back of a truck and then rushes headlong into a village that is attacking the Ethiopian Jews and plucks a child out of harm’s way just before a machine gun-toting militia thug can cut the poor child in two.
Ari is the Israeli superhero and his own Mossad bosses call him reckless and out of control. He has the requisite scene back at home where his daughter draws a picture of the family – but Dad, isn’t in it, “because you’re always at work.”
The dialogue between the characters is the stuff of bad action films. “He who saves one life saves the world entire,” (quoting the Talmud) and “You hesitated. Don’t hesitate. If you hesitate, we’re all dead.” “What we do is dangerous. People get hurt sometimes,” and standing shirtless like Captain America himself, he says, “You leave no one behind.” Get the picture?
Michael K. Williams’ character, Kabede Bimro, is largely marginalized, as is coincidentally, the entire story of Ethiopia’s Jews. They are just a convenient backdrop to the tale, but their story is glossed over. Anyone not knowing the background is bound to leave the film wondering exactly who the heck they are.
In reality, they are the long-lost Jewish tribe, Beta Israel. For centuries, communities of Jews lived in some 500 villages in northern Ethiopia, with a never-ending yearning to return to their ancestral homeland.
Bennett’s Rachel is the blonde Mossad bad-ass who looks good leading an aerobics class and can then put a near-naked chokehold on a Sudanese militiaman who stumbles into what was really happening. She plays it perfectly and was the most believable member of the cast.
Rachel is based on the real-life Yola Reitman, an El Al flight attendant and an avid deep-sea diver who was recruited for this mission. Reitman was brought into the filming as an advisor. In an interview with the website Aish.com, she described her recruitment.
“It was surely an offer I could not refuse,” Reitman said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – not only to serve my country but to save thousands of Jewish lives. It also spoke to my adventurous spirit.”
“Our ability to successfully host actual tourists,” she says, “was the difference between people believing – or not believing – our cover story.”
The scenes where the German tourists show up unannounced, having been enticed by the Sudanese who are anxious for the tourism industry, are short but really some of the better ones in the film.
Chris Chalk was outstanding but, again, the too-traditional bad guy who is a murdering, cigar-chomping, double neck guitar-playing, corrupt Sudanese official. Kingsley and Kinnear are pretty much recruited for just some short cameo roles with no real substance.
The actual operation came to a screeching halt in 1984 when a politician foolishly bragged about it. The Arab world reacted as one would expect, so Mossad pulled everyone out in the middle of the night. They left behind a resort filled with scuba-diving tourists who would awaken the next morning to find the entire senior staff had deserted them – yet with the promise to refund their money.
They had the opportunity here to create a true-life story and present it with at least the respectful feeling we had with “Argo” but instead opted for a caper feel, like an Israeli “Oceans 11.” The true Mossad and Ethiopian Jews who were involved in this deserved better.
The end credits feature footage of the real-life figures involved in the actual operation.