Like with the Beatles or the Seven Dwarfs, it can be tempting to boil down the Avengers actors into simplistic, one-quality personality types. Robert Downey Jr. was the showboat. Mark Ruffalo was the thoughtful thespian. Chris Hemsworth was the goofball. And Chris Evans… well, Chris Evans was the anxious one. For just about the entirety of his time as Captain America, he lamented what was challenging about taking on such an iconic character — not to mention taking on the demands of shooting so many effects-heavy movies over so many years. “It’s nuts,” he said in 2016. “If you make a big movie like Independence Day, they’ll lock you up for three movies.” Evans ended up doing twice that many for Marvel.
The trappings of fame — the constant promotion and the madness of the Marvel machine — seemed to get to him more than his co-stars. (In that same interview, he mentioned the social anxiety that sometimes plagues him, adding, “I love acting — but that’s not all you’re asking me to do.”) So when rumors started spreading that he might retire after Avengers: Endgame, it wasn’t shocking. Recently, he’s pushed back against those rumors. (“I never said the word ‘retire,’” he clarified. “It’s a really obnoxious notion for an actor to say they’re going to retire — it’s not something you retire from.”) But there’s always been an impression that he didn’t just want to be a blockbuster guy. And he’s got the chops to back up those ambitions: He’s quite good in nervy sci-fi dramas like Sunshine and Snowpiercer. So now that Captain America is behind him, he can finally explore artier, edgier fare.
The Red Sea Diving Resort is the first film to come out from any of the Avengers principals since Endgame, and because Evans (unlike most of his Marvel cohorts) is now free of superhero obligations, there’s understandable anticipation of what his post-Steve Rogers career will look like. But while it’s appealing to see him play someone other than Captain America, this mediocre true-life drama illustrates a grim reality so many actors, famous or not, have to face: As talented as you are, you’re only as good as your material. Red Sea is a more “important” story than, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier — it’s about refugees, civil war and life-or-death stakes. But in terms of being a satisfying dramatic experience, it’s an inferior product.
The movie, written and directed by Gideon Raff, recounts an incredible covert operation orchestrated in the late 1970s by the Mossad, which shepherded Ethiopian Jews into Israel. The plan was a doozy: The agents would use, as cover, a diving resort on the coast of Sudan, essentially creating a fake tourist destination while, late at night, smuggling convoys of fleeing Ethiopians onto boats. Thousands of refugees were transported this way, and the Mossad’s daring hasn’t been given nearly enough attention. It’s the sort of heroism that often gets turned into an Oscar-worthy film.
Like a lot of Netflix movies, Red Sea feels like an uncanny-valley amalgam of earlier, better films, recalling Best Picture winners such as Schindler’s List and Argo. The film was shot in 2017 but picked up by the streaming site early this year from its original distributor, an indication that perhaps Red Sea wasn’t so good. And indeed, although the movie has its moments, it’s generally uninspired and achingly earnest. There’s no question that the subject matter is significant and weighty, but that doesn’t mean the movie can’t be exhilarating or compelling. Instead, Red Sea feels like the sort of film you should watch because it’s “good for you.” Man cannot live by superhero cinema alone — every once in a while, we should check out a somber movie about the problems of the real world. But Red Sea’s gloomy worthiness ends up being a drag. I just hope Evans didn’t choose it because he thought he owed it to himself or his fans.
He plays Ari Levinson, a hotshot Mossad agent who’s a natural leader and a bit of a smart-ass. Evans sports the same long hair and beard from Infinity War/Endgame, but he seems to relish not being hemmed in by Captain America’s straitjacket nobility. Instead, he gets to portray the sort of stereotypical makes-his-own-rules good guy who has to be brought into his boss’ office to get chewed out for his recklessness. (That scene literally happens in Red Sea, with Ben Kingsley playing his commanding officer.) To be fair, this isn’t the only way in which the character is a total cliché. He’s also an impassioned guy who cares about this cause, and damn it, he’s not gonna let anything stand in his way! Sometimes he lets his ego get in the way and doesn’t always think everything through! He’s a risk-taker! But goodhearted! He’s a complex hero!
For a little while, Red Sea looks like it might be an irreverent take on this somber material. There’s something inherently comic about the fact that a bunch of hardened agents had to pretend to run a resort — complete with actual tourists who fell for the con job — and even teach aerobics and take tours on snorkeling expeditions. (Cue Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” playing over a montage of Ari and his team partying with vacationers and serendipitously ferrying Ethiopian Jews to safety.) Also, like most of Ari’s colleagues, including Haley Bennett and Michiel Huisman, Evans is a fetching piece of eye candy — and so thanks to the warm-weather setting, there’s lots of pecs and cleavage, making Red Sea, ever so briefly, the thirst trap of prestige true-life dramas.
I found myself longing for that Red Sea to last, but alas, the movie soon descends into tedious self-seriousness. Evans can be a dynamic, lighthearted performer — one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s abiding pleasures was watching ramrod-straight Steve Rogers loosen up over time — but Red Sea is the sort of movie an actor sometimes does as a form of sober penance. After the MCU’s gaudy success, he may have seen this project as a necessary corrective — an “eat your broccoli” rebuttal to the Avengers’ junk food. Maybe he wanted to beef up his actor’s-actor bona fides. Whatever his reasons, Red Sea is a failure that mistakes worthiness for quality.
Evans has more promising projects on the horizon, including this fall’s Knives Out from Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson, so it would be foolish to put too much importance on Red Sea. But while watching this well-meaning but underpowered white-savior thriller, I kept thinking about how actors make choices in terms of their career — the movies they pick and the movies they pass on. Before Marvel, Evans was a rising star who never quite found his niche. (Never forget he was in those terrible original Fantastic Four films.) Captain America might have been limiting in some ways — “Since 2010, I’ve never gone more than a year without putting that fuckin’ thing on,” he said in 2016 of the character’s uniform — but it’s also a role that he imbued with his decency and understated heroism. He became our Steve Rogers, and it’s not a stretch to say that perhaps nothing he does subsequently will be as resonant. He plays a more grounded hero in The Red Sea Diving Resort, but not a better one. Walking away from Marvel may be a relief after so many years. But he’ll carry Captain America’s essence with him for a good long while.
Here are three other takeaways from The Red Sea Diving Resort…
#1. Stop showing the real people at the end of fictionalized versions of true stories.
As we neared the end of Red Sea, I got myself ready. I knew the moment was coming and then, boom, there it was: Once the film’s story concludes, Raff cuts to actual images of the Mossad’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews, including photos from the real-life scenes that are re-created in the film. (I won’t say what, specifically, for fear of spoilers.)
The reasoning behind this strategy is fairly obvious. We’ve just spent two-plus-hours watching a movie, but we’re always a bit curious: C’mon, did all this really happen? And so, on cue, the filmmaker trots out the real people, or real images, to make us realize just how close to the truth this story is.
Every time this device is used in a movie, I always feel a little deflated. It’s not just that it’s a cliché — it’s that there’s something deeply cynical about this narrative strategy. And no one has explained it better than critics Tasha Robinson and Bryan Bishop, who discussed this cinematic phenomenon in 2016 over at The Verge, mentioning several recent films that utilized the technique (including Snowden, Sully, Loving, Deepwater Horizon and Queen of Katwe) as well as older films, such as Schindler’s List. Robinson encapsulated my annoyance with this look-at-these-real-people approach:
“It’s a gimmick for gravitas. Most movies based on true stories have a glancing relationship to the truth: even the best ones have to invent dialogue, condense characters and simplify the story, and the worst ones don’t bother with reality at all, past the ‘based on a true story’ tag. Bringing real people back into it at the end is a way of saying ‘Look! We didn’t entirely make this up!’”
But audiences, apparently, can’t get enough of the device. And I say that after seeing it play out firsthand at True/False, a documentary festival I attend every spring. Often, the subjects of the documentaries show up at the end of the screening, usually to raucous applause. And one of the reasons why crowds go nuts for these people is because, hey, we just saw them in a movie! And now they’re here in front of us! Even with nonfiction films, there’s a strange disconnect between what’s up there on the screen and real life — we somehow don’t quite grasp that those people walk among us in our everyday world.
Likewise, when fiction films like Red Sea show us the real people or real footage, it makes the whole thing “real” for us. But there’s also another explanation for this strategy — maybe there’s a guilt-trip phenomenon at work: You thought this was just a fun movie but, see, we worked really hard to bring this important, true-life topic to you. Be impressed by our seriousness of purpose.
I think that’s the part that’s especially grating for me. When a film carts out the real people, it’s like it’s expecting extra credit — it wants us to reward them for their sensitivity to the subject matter. Well, sorry, but I never agreed to those terms and conditions. So, let’s make a deal, movies based on real stories: If I really like you, I’ll go home afterward and look up more information myself. Not to brag, but I know how Google works.
#2. What happened to Mr. Pibb?
Often in period films, a character will make reference to something that was popular at the time that no longer is. (A recent example is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which celebrates an era when TV westerns were a big deal.) Ordinarily, the idea is to elicit a knowing chuckle from the audience: Ha ha, we know that that thing isn’t popular anymore.
In Red Sea, a character offers another character a Mr. Pibb, a novel new drink that’s described as being like Coca-Cola but with a cherry taste. As someone who drank way too much Mr. Pibb and Dr. Pepper as a kid, I quickly went down a rabbit hole to learn more about this largely-forgotten soda.
Kudos to Pibb Thug, a fan site devoted to all things Mr. Pibb that’s run by brothers Philip and Larry Thomas, which helped fill me in on the drink’s history. Mr. Pibb was first unveiled by the Coca-Cola Company in 1972, hoping to combat the popularity of Dr. Pepper. The early TV spots aimed to distinguish Mr. Pibb from colas or root beers. “It goes down good,” the ads promised. “It’s got a special kind of taste,” a handsome dude says in one of the commercials, “real smooth and easy.” Basically, Coca-Cola tried to sell it like cigarettes.
Sadly, Mr. Pibb’s taste could never compare to Dr. Pepper’s, which probably explains why, early this century, the company created a new version, now labeled Pibb Xtra, which made it seem like the Mountain Dew of cherry-flavored drinks. The rebrand didn’t help: I typed my location into the Pibb Xtra site, and the only places I can buy the drink within a 10-mile radius of my home are fine eateries like Del Taco. The soda is so culturally maligned these days it was even the butt of a typically lame American Dad bit.
#3. I can’t stop watching news footage of people smoking on planes.
When Ari and his team head to Sudan, they travel by plane — and because it’s 1979, people smoke in their seats. I’m just old enough to remember that strange period when you’d be on a plane and the flight attendants would announce that it was now a no-smoking flight — and passengers would enthusiastically clap and cheer. Back then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was still a relatively novel new concept, this notion that flights didn’t allow you to light up.
What I’ve discovered is that I kinda love old footage of people smoking on planes. Like this news story from 1984, which explains just how much non-smoking fliers really hated people who smoked:
One of the advantages of getting older is living long enough to see traditions change — things that once seemed set in stone suddenly just feel ludicrous and are swept aside. Smoking on planes is like that for me. It was such an obvious problem — forget secondhand smoke, flight attendants were afraid the cigarettes might catch the plane on fire — and yet it persisted for decades. And that, in part, was because air travel itself was viewed differently back then. There was an idea that flying was a glamorous luxury in the same way that traveling on ocean liners was a generation earlier. Take a look at this Pan Am promotional film, supposedly from 1958, which played up the elegance of jetting through the sky. Being able to enjoy a cigarette was just part of the appeal.
I’m endlessly grateful that smoking has been banned on airplanes — even if the FAA still decrees that the bathrooms need to have ashtrays — but it’s a little sad that everything else has been stripped out of the flying experience. I don’t want a cigarette, but the comfort of those roomier seats and ridiculously large restrooms would be nice. People don’t smoke anymore on flights, but now we’re all cramped up against one another as we hurtle toward our destination. We’re healthier, but still kinda miserable up there.