Operation Odessa, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary, is a rollicking, raucously funny ride
Operation Odessa pulls spies, drug runners, arms dealers, gangsters and the weight of history into a story which, had it been fiction, would have been dismissed as outrageous.
“So for these three individuals, one with the Israeli passport, one was, I believe, a Cuban, and a Venezuelan passport... They just walked into the base — and not only walked in the base, were given a tour of the base. This is drug traffickers, criminals getting access to a submarine base to look and see and shop for a boat in the Russian base. That’s just unheard of.” Spoken by Alex Yasievich — an undercover agent investigating the three individuals — these words encapsulate the madness, drama and seeming improbability of the events depicted in Operation Odessa, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary, a rollicking, breathless, stylish and raucuously funny ride that pulls spies, drug runners, arms dealers, gangsters and the weight of history into a story which, had it been fiction, would have been dismissed as outrageous.
The story was always going to be the star of Tiller Russell’s documentary. Having received access to his three larger-than-life characters, he packs bold, loud graphics and groovy, upbeat music between vox pops to underscore the madcap coolness of the narrative. But Tarzan, Juan Almeida and Tony Yester and their casual, off-hand style of wheeling dealing and getting in and out of potentially life-threatening situations keeps the viewers glued to the screen. There are serious geo-political implications to their actions, the weight of which is completely lost on them. It all seems like a case of little boys’ role-playing taken too far. What else would you say if you were told that these three individuals got together in the mid '90s to purchase a Soviet-era submarine and sell it to one of the largest drug cartels in the world based out of Colombia. Or that at one point Almeida successfully impersonated Pablo Escobar before the Russian mafia and walked away with a distribution deal for Colombian cocaine.
Long story short, with such explosively outrageous material at hand, combined with the three protagonists readily available to tell their tale, Russell’s job was simply to stick to the facts and structure the narrative as well as he could. He draws heavily from the Miami Vice palette, brings in the Drug Enforcement Agency officers who worked the case, and produces a crackerjack of a fun film.
One is reminded of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street more than once while watching Russell’s film. Here are these three guys living lavishly off the suffering of thousands of people affected by the drug trade. They are clearly having a lot of fun and, what’s more, they appear to be getting away with it. While ordinary Russians are out on the streets celebrating the fall of the Soviet empire and the dawn of a new hope, the trio is already halfway through cracking a deal for cheap, near defunct weaponry. Ironically, and perhaps befittingly, the viewer is having as much fun watching their many escapades as they are, leeching off the butt end of history. The cinema of excess, in sum. It appears to throw questions of moral responsibility into the waste bin. We are enthralled by the lush imagery, lavish lifestyles and the blinding sheen that appears to bounce off everything that the camera turns to. It is a cesspit that invites us to question our evaluation of these charismatic characters, while merrily popping champagne bottles alongside them. In a world becoming increasingly obsessed with images dancing on screens big and small, the cinema of excess bombards our consciousness with a grand guignol conjured by the free market.
Even the real life characters are depicted as nothing less than movie stars. Tony Yester will remind the casual cinephile of a suave Tony Montana as essayed by Harvey Keitel. Tarzan is the Russian emigre with one leg sunk in a pool of vodka and another in illegal cash, and Almeida a wealthy, silver-tongued Christopher Hitchens, if only Hitchens chose the other side of history. Everything is big: the planes, the escapades, the helicopters and submarines. There is apparently no time to turn around and glance at the mess they make as they steamroll through their lives.
Perhaps that is the point. Russell exploits the cinematic medium to the degree that even the banal details of the trio’s lives appear lustrous and inviting. This appears to be a cinema where the filmmaker doesn’t simply choose not to judge his audience, but even implores them to get hooked onto this new drug he’s come up with. Film as heroin. Film as cocaine. As if like a reformed drug addict he knows that the moment the high is over and withdrawal sets in, every viewer will be confronted by what she set out to escape in the first place: choices. And Operation Odessa tells you that you can have a hell of a ride before reality puts its foot in the door.
Operation Odessa is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
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