‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Tells the True Story of an Israeli Operation to Smuggle Jewish Ethiopian Refugees 

In the late ’70s, as civil war raged in Ethiopia, Israel carried out a clandestine operation to smuggle Ethiopian Jews out of Africa. This is the story told with the style and verve of a 1980s combat thriller in Netflix’s “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” Most true stories about espionage could inspire countless action movies, and that’s precisely what saves this one. Amid the muscles, macho poses and gunfire, there’s a rather fascinating premise. It’s like if a Rambo movie decided to be about something meaningful. 

In a dangerous evening amid gunfire, a Jewish Ethiopian named Kabede (Michael Kenneth Williams) leads a group of refugees while being chased by deadly militias. Kabede has made contact with a Mossad agent named Ari Levinson (Chris Evans), who has struggled to find the proper way to get the refugees out and into Israel. He comes up with a plan involving moving the Ethiopians to Sudan, which is also hostile territory, and take over an abandoned seaside resort. By faking the appearance of a tourist getaway, the Mossad can then use the spot as a transit point to move the refugees out. The plan is approved with some skepticism by Ari’s superior Ethan Levin (Ben Kingsley). Ari puts together a team of fellow agents, sun-tanned and ready to kick butt, composed of Jacob ‘Jake’ Wolf (Michiel Huisman), Rachel Reiter (Haley Bennett) and Sammy Navon (Alessandro Nivola). Posing as businessmen, the agents secure the resort. All seems to be going well until actual German tourists arrive, expecting basic services, and of course there are the refugees who need rescuing. Also snooping around is CIA operative Walton Bowen (Greg Kinnear).

Writer/director Gideon Raff, himself a native of Israel who has written for top shows in the U.S. like “Homeland,” shows no pretensions of making a traditional historical saga. He wants to use the thriller aesthetic to show how real life is more exciting than fiction. The cinematography by Roberto Schaefer evokes ’90s action cinema while the music by Mychael Danna experiments with ’80s synth vibes. Lines are clearly defined. The Ethiopian Jewish refugees must get to safety and the villains are ruthless Sudanese warlords like Col. Abdel Ahmed (Chris Chalk), who smiles with villainy while treating Ari and his comrades with suspicion. The Mossad agents themselves look like chiseled alumni from “Top Gun” or “First Blood,” with introductions out of John Woo. But this also gives the movie a sense of fun, and hopefully engaged viewers will then go search for the actual details of the mission.

“I was born and raised in Israel, so I’m always fascinated with stories that have to do with that neighborhood and the stakes are always high there,” said Raff when sitting down with Entertainment Voice. “I was shooting another show about Israel in Croatia called ‘Dig,’ when the producer of this called me asked if I knew about this hotel used by the Mossad to smuggle Ethiopian Jews to Israel. And I didn’t. I grew up with those inspiring images of the airlift, but I had never heard of this hotel. So I flew to Israel and met with the Ethiopians who left their homes and the Mossad agents who operated the hotel. I realized there was great potential for a movie here because it’s not just one thing or the other, it’s very entertaining and yet with a lot of heart. That’s what I like to see in movies.”

The style of the movie is very deliberate in capturing the cinematic language of the time. “When designing the language of this movie we were talking a lot about giving you with the costumes, the hair, the music, the production design, we wanted to give this nostalgic feel of the end of the ’70s. We looked at movies like ‘Marathon Man,’ those movies we all grew up with in the ’70s.”

As Ari tries to keep the morale going with his team even as Sudanese officials come close to discovering what’s going at the resort, there’s a spy movie tension and one wonders how close any of this is to what actually went on. Mossad, like any major intelligence agency, is particularly famous for keeping secrets. “There was stuff they had to call the office see if they could talk about. When you start talking to the people involved you start asking the questions they might not be allowed to talk about. Some of them are still active, some of the people I met are high ranking, which was a cool element. But the hotel operation itself was declassified a few years ago. Yet some of these people are so humble about their work, they aren’t looking for the spotlight. Just being in their presence was amazing.”

Chris Evans, known the world over as MCU shield thrower Captain America, proves here he can also turn into a more traditional action hero, bringing the necessary rugged confidence. The rest of the cast look like they’re having a ball. “It was a privilege working with these people,” said Raff. “Spending months in South Africa with them…we really became family. Some of the cast came from here, some from Israel, we also cast locally. In terms of research the actors met with the actual people. Chris did a lot of research into the history.” Shooting action is no easy feat. “There was a physical toll on me, but nothing compared to what I did to the actors. I threw them into rivers that were freezing, running up hills that were scorching hot. They were running in fields where we knew there were black mambas while I sat in my air-conditioned van.”

“The Red Sea Diving Resort” also takes on a particular, sudden urgency in light of recent events in Israel as many in its Ethiopian community have taken to the streets in protest against police brutality and other grievances. Raff is aware of how the story he tells has become even more meaningful. “It’s a struggle for equality,” said Raff, “it’s a struggle to end discrimination. This is why I wanted to tell this story. We are all the same, all of us are human, all of us deserve the same and deserve to help each other. When we realize that and when we do that, the world is a better place. We see that all over the world now, we see dozens of people drowning in the Mediterranean, people who are desperate to get a future for their children. We need to help them.”

The Red Sea Diving Resort” begins streaming July 31 on Netflix.