Netflix true story saga of Mossad: ‘Argo’ meets ‘Exodus’

People often say a movie is “based on an incredible true story,” but The Red Sea Diving Resort, which will be released globally on Netflix on July 31, really is. Directed by Gideon Raff, who created the series Prisoners of War and Homeland, it tells a suspenseful tale of how Mossad agents smuggled thousands of Ethiopians to Israel via a hotel in the Sudan in the early ‘80s, and it plays like Argo meets Exodus.

It’s an especially poignant story to see at the moment, since the recent death of young Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah at the hands of police ignited outrage and caused mass protests by the Ethiopian community throughout Israel. The Red Sea Diving Resort is a bittersweet reminder of the fact that Ethiopian Jews very much wanted to come to Israel because of what the country meant to them historically and religiously, not only to avoid persecution and danger, and that the vast majority of Israelis welcomed them with open arms, at least initially. It also brings home how difficult and traumatic their journey here was.
What Raff has done is to turn the story into a suspense film that will appeal to viewers who have no knowledge of or interest in the Ethiopian exodus to Israel, although he does his best to convey the urgency and the stakes of this mission. The catalyst for the drama is Kabede (Michael Kenneth Williams, who is best known for his extraordinary performance as Omar on The Wire), an Ethiopian activist who appeals to the Israeli government for help. Chris Evans – aka Captain America in the Avengers franchise – plays Ari Levinson, a Mossad agent – with a backstory of being raised in America that partially (but not really) explains why everyone speaks English in the movie – who is working to bring Ethiopians across the desert and into Israel. But he realizes that this journey is too hazardous for many and searches for another way. What he comes up with is a plan that’s so crazy, it just might work: Leasing an abandoned diving resort in the Sudan, bringing the Ethiopians there – via a shorter trek, albeit one across territory held by brutal gangs – and having Israeli naval vessels pick them up. But, of course, it’s so unconventional that he has trouble selling the plan to his curmudgeonly superior, Eytan (Ben Kingsley, who manages to seem like an assertive Israeli even when he is calling the agents he supervises “chaps” or “lads”).
 As Eytan puts it, “So your idea, just to reiterate, is to send a group of Jews to a Muslim country to a place where they might get eaten by Bedouins to run a fake hotel in order rescue a group of black Jews who might or might not survive the 1,000 km. walk across the desert, to be smuggled out to sea by Israeli Navy SEALs to an Israeli ship,” to which Ari replies, “Disguised as a petroleum service vessel, yeah.”

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OF COURSE, if Eytan did not eventually agree, there would be no movie. Ari then goes through the getting-the-band-back-together phase, as he appeals to former colleagues who are the only ones who can get the job done. These are Rachel Reiter (Haley Bennett, who starred in The Girl on the Train, and who has to be here because every adventure thriller needs a blonde), who asks philosophically, “We’re all just refugees, aren’t we?”; Jake Wolf (Michiel Huisman, who played Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones), who has dropped out of the intelligence game and now actually works at a diving resort; the mellow but up-for-anything Max Rose (Alex Hassell of Suburbicon); and finally, Sammy Navon (Alessandro Nivola of American Hustle and Disobedience), a former surgeon who lost part of his fingers in a previous operation that he feels was run recklessly by Ari.

Our heroes are pitted against a corrupt and cruel Sudanese official, Col. Abdel Ahmed (Chris Chalk of When They See Us, Gotham and The Newsroom), who knows something is up but can’t quite figure out what.
Running a fake resort as a cover presents all kinds of possibilities for comic relief, such as when, just as the group is to undertake a sensitive rescue operation, a group of German tourists shows up, who have seen the fake flyers that were distributed as part of the cover. The Mossad agents serve them dinner, give them diving and tai chi lessons and even do massages. The soundtrack of 1980s pop music from groups like Duran Duran also adds to the atmosphere.

For a while, things go smoothly, and Ari posts a sign that gives the number of satisfied guests the hotel has served, which is really the number of Ethiopians rescued. But the Sudanese close in on them and Eytan and other Israelis pressure them to drop the whole project. But Kabede, along with his associate, Retta (Yossi Vasa of Nevsu), keep showing up to remind them of the stakes.
There are a certain number of clichés throughout, the most grating of which is a drawing by Ari’s young daughter of her family, which shows only herself and her mother – Ari is off on too many missions – which could have been lifted from Argo, or any number of movies. But I think that the clichés often found in Netflix dramas aren’t a big problem, since these movies and shows are aimed at audiences who are so young, they’ve never seen them before and won’t even realize they are clichés. So when Eytan says, “If this goes wrong, you’ll all be hanging from cranes in Khartoum,” they won’t be throwing their energy drinks at the screen.
Of course, we know they won’t be hanged in Khartoum, but while you’re watching it, Raff manages to amp up the suspense and many sequences will have you on the edge of your seat.

Evans is entertaining as the dogged Ari and Williams is particularly convincing as Kabede, so good that I forgot who he was and only thought about Omar and The Wire once or twice.
Perhaps there has never been a better moment to tell this story, in the midst of the worldwide migrant crisis and the Ethiopian protests in Israel. If you’re looking for entertainment with some heart, you’ll enjoy The Red Sea Diving Resort, and the end, when clips of the real agents and the Ethiopian immigrants are shown, is extremely moving.

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