The Red Sea Diving Resort
Hey, it’s the height of the cold war, and a bunch of spies have to orchestrate a large-scale fabrication in a hostile country in order to rescue a bunch of stranded people in need, who risk death if they stay where they are. The guy in charge of the operation has some family issues back home, and his government might pull the plug on the whole scheme any second. The hostages are panicking and the evil security forces are closing in. Sound familiar? If you think I’m here to talk about Ben Affleck’s excellent 2012 film Argo, then buckle up, because there is a bumpy road ahead.
Maybe I shouldn’t skew this review too much before we get into it, after all, The Red Sea Diving Resort has plenty in the positive ledger before the title comes up. The cast is excellent, director Gideon Raff has some established background in espionage stories and the basis for the film is a genuinely interesting tale of undercover skullduggery in aid of humanitarian objectives, and from a very unlikely source. But the whiff of replication was strong off it all the same, so the director at least had the benefit of lowered expectations in my case.
Sudan in the 1980’s: when thousands of Jewish Ethiopians, led by Kebede (Michael K. Williams), flee their native state because of the ongoing civil war, Israeli Mossad agents, headed by Ari (Chris Evans), are tasked with getting them out of another atrocity-laden country. The plan involves fabricating a diving resort on the coast of the Red Sea as a cover for their clandestine extractions, but the depredations of local militia, and internal stresses in their team, may lead to disaster.
Watching The Red Sea Diving Resort, I was thinking about the time myself and my girlfriend were watching trailers before some film way back when, and on came the preview for J. A. Bayona’s The Impossible, about a western family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. While watching Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and a young Tom Holland struggling against the water and the chaos she said, with the driest deadpan delivery possible, “Oh, those poor white people caught in the flood”. In so doing, she captured one of the common repeating problems of western approaches to third world disasters.
Honestly, The Red Sea Diving Resort shocked me, and not just because it is trying to be Argo in so many ways. Turns out I was looking at the wrong thing when seeking any pre-viewing thoughts. A look at the cast with a more critical eye would have brought to my attention that they are mostly white in a story where the victims are African, and that the Israeli director may have priors in making his spy stories all about one particular race. As fast as you can say “White Savior” and “Social Darwinism”, The Red Sea Diving Resort outs itself as a film that is really concerned only with the white side of the “Arous Holiday Village” story, with the African portion that should be at the core of the story shunted unapologetically to the side. We’re crying out to see the lives of the Ethiopian Jews, but instead we’re getting Captain Israel.
I mean, the actual story that deserves to be told is screaming out in this picture. It even has the brilliant Michael K. Williams (unfortunately, last seen by me in the regrettable Assassin’s Creed) as a potential lynchpin. A marginalised group inside the balkanising mess that was 1980’s Ethiopia, that has to travel from one humanitarian catastrophe there to another in Sudan. There they are forced to live in dilapidated refugee shanty towns, preyed upon by militaristic despots, all the while dreaming of making it to the literal promised land…are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to watch that film? It’s a modern-day Exodus, with a brilliant actor in the middle. That’s all the drama that the story needs.
But instead of making that his story, Raff only wants to talk about the Israeli side of things, the Mossad side, the boring side. So The Red Sea Diving Resort becomes a story about a bunch of white guys and girls, their associated bullshit, and everyone else is just there to be rescued. It’s a remarkably one-sided way of looking at things, that betrays, and I am not afraid to say it, racist thinking. This film has a blatant narrative of white superheroes here to save the natives from themselves, where said natives are just here to be rescued by their betters, and like it. Only a handful of them even get to have lines!
For a film in 2019 to treat this topic in this manner is simply abhorrent: anyone with even a basic understanding of western interference in Africa will roll their eyes at the sight of Chris Evans literally carrying Ethiopians to Israeli civilisation on his back, or wiping away the tears of African children, while spouting action-movie cliches like “You leave no one behind”. It’s like a 19th century propaganda story. Excepting Williams (the only named Ethiopian), the Ethiopians are just huddled masses treated like cinematic cattle, herded around by one actual character to the next, when not being butchered out of hand, with little in the way of actual agency.
And that is before we talk about the film’s failure to adequately tackle the fate and treatment of Ethiopian Jews once they made it to Israel. You could argue that this is outside the scope of Raff’s film, but I feel it is a cop-out to present every Israeli as various shades of hero when Ethiopian Jews who made it to Jerusalem, and their descendants, have suffered from systematic discrimination to this day. But Raff isn’t interested in that, he just wants his white Israeli heroes to be paragons, and nothing more complicated. Good intentions are all that are apparently required here, even if every frame of The Red Sea Diving Resort comes across as some level of exploitative. You can’t make a film about a topic like this and limit yourself to gleeful Africans arriving in Israel. It is my firm belief that Israel is one of the last countries that should be trying to portray itself as colour-blind.
Moving beyond the film’s central flaw though, it’s guilty of something just as criminal, which is taking what is an intriguing tale on paper, and making it regrettably dull on-screen. The genius of Argo was in how it made historical events breathlessly exciting and its central character interesting, but The Red Sea Diving Resort falls badly short on both counts. It’s far, far too long for the amount of material is has, resorting to portraying the operation as a sort of Ocean’s 11-esque caper, replete with Evans recruiting the others one by one and lengthy montage sequences at the midpoint to showcase the fake hotel in operation. Worse, its characters are too moodily heroic to be considered as anything but caricatures. Thinly written with a lot of the special forces tropes you will have seen in many other places, they’re just moving props around the lead.
Chris Evans is at an important point in his career, now that his time in the MCU has come to a conclusion. He will be hoping for better roles than this, with his Ari being just a more dour Steve Rodgers, breezily heroic, physically handsome (he likes to do pull-ups whenever he can) while occasionally frowning about the difficult marriage back home, just so we get that he’s got problems. But Ben Affleck he ain’t, and Evans can only do so much with this cumbersome script (“I can’t do this without you”, “If we don’t do something, no one will”, “What we do is dangerous” etc).
He’s surrounded by some great talent, but all of them are phoning it in, with even Williams struggling with the accent he is landed with. Ben Kingsley is around for a few scenes as the requisite heavy hitter, here to pace around a control room; Greg Kinnear looks disinterested as a US diplomat who starts meddling in the Israeli operations for some reason; Alessandro Nivola is Ari’s argumentative colleague that he needs to bounce off of for the sake of some drama; and Haley Bennett is the girl (and that is all she is). Chris Chalk as a murderous Sudanese militia leader adds some bite, but never gets enough room in this bloated company to really stand out, and, indeed, is enough of a cliche himself (right down to firing his gun in the air when angry).
Raff gives his film the appropriately grainy look, and I can’t seriously fault the effort to re-create Sudan in locations throughout Namibia and South Africa. But it never really comes off as anything other than an effort to ape Affleck, and The Red Sea Diving Resort lacks any true stand-out moments of cinematography worth talking about. There is little in the way of tense set-ups or set-pieces, not even when the Sudanese militia are closing in. Instead, there is only stuff we have seen before, in Argo and a hundred other Cold War espionage films, from restive waits in passport queues to arriving on a dark coastline in a rubber dinghy.
The Red Sea Diving Resort is a regrettably lacking effort at bringing to life one of the Cold War periods more interesting stories. In framing it almost entirely around the Israeli team trying to get the Ethiopians out of Sudan it takes on the look of a blinkered propaganda exercise, that does not want to adequately explore the experience of those Ethiopians before, during or after their salvation from Sudanese refugee camps and civil war. The cast are disinterested in the material, and it isn’t anything special to look at. You would expect better from the man who was the progenitor of Homeland, an altogether better drama, albeit in a different medium. Netflix surely has better properties to acquire. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).