SXSW Film Review – Operation Odessa
The story behind Operation Odessa (2018) is so outlandish that it could only be told in documentary form. If this were made into a narrative film I wonder if people would buy it. But the remarkable thing is: the events that take place did in fact happen. In his documentary, director Tiller Russell explores the journey of three unlikely criminals in the late 80s and early 90s, and how they all became involved in a plot far above what any of them expected. If you pitched this to a Hollywood exec, would they give it the green light? The shenanigans Jordan Belfort gets into in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is peanuts compared to what these guys went through.
We’re introduced to three men. The first is Ludwig Fainberg, better known as “Tarzan.” An immigrant from Soviet Russia, as soon as Tarzan landed on American shores he fell into a life of crime. He started out as a member of the Gambino crime family in New York, but soon made his way to Miami, where he opened up a strip club named after his favorite movie (Porky’s, 1981). But that was a cover for what Tarzan was really into, which was drug smuggling, utilizing his ties to the Russian mob.
The second member is Juan Almeida, also known as The Playboy. Almeida was a smooth businessman, using his social abilities to get in the good graces of anyone he meets. Before a person realizes it, Almeida can sell them just about anything – cars, boats, etc. Tarzan and Almeida soon became close friends and business associates, with Almeida setting up much of their illegal operation in Miami. During this time, Miami was a hot bed of cultural change, and with it criminal change as well. As immigrants came flooding in, so too came drugs, particularly cocaine. In their testimonies, Tarzan and Almeida brag about the wealth and women they came in possession of (Russell does not hesitate providing a number of photographs of Tarzan posing provocatively with his strippers).
The third member of the trio is Nelson Yester aka “Tony”. If there were ever a real life version of Tony Montana, Yester would be it. A former member of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, Yester has a tough, mean attitude about him. Audio recording has him stating that he doesn’t want to kill anybody, but is willing to if need be. He clearly has a short temper, and holds his interview at arms’ length, hiding behind dark shaded glasses. Yester, in a way, is a professional ghost. At the time of filming, Yester is at an undisclosed location in Africa. He tells us that he has been on the run since the ‘90s, avoiding capture from the authorities that want to take him in and the cartel that want to end his life.
What makes Tarzan, Almeida, and Yester such intriguing characters outside of the countless ones we’ve seen before? It’s the size of their egos. Where many other criminals try to keep a low profile, the three of them (especially Tarzan) always tried to see how far they could go. Russell’s documentary moves at a breakneck speed, trying to encapsulate the ambition of these three men, and how it put them in precarious situations. It feels as though he speeds through the material – the pacing is so fast that I questioned if this should have been a longer doc or maybe even a miniseries. At one point, in an effort to maximum the size of their shipments, they travel to Russia – which at the time was going through a major shift from the soviet state it previously was – in an effort to purchase two Russian military helicopters. Tarzan and Almeida describe how, when pitted against the Russian mob, Almeida actually got them out of it by pretending to be Pablo Escobar and striking up a deal.
But that wasn’t the craziest thing they tried to do. In an effort to move even more cocaine from Colombia to Miami, the men attempted to purchase a Russian submarine. Yes, you read that correctly, an actual Russian submarine from the military. It was such a crazy idea that the Colombian cartel forced Yester to take a picture of the sub to make sure it was the real deal. A humorous tone develops as things start getting more out of hand. To think that these men came so close to owning a submarine is hard to fathom. When it comes to criminality, where is the ceiling? At a certain point, the opportunity to even buy nuclear weapons was discussed.
Russell’s film doesn’t really condone or condemn Tarzan, Almeida, and Yester, and that may have been a detrimental decision. With this neutral perspective, the three come across as old friends simply reminiscing on the ludicrous adventures they had as their younger selves. We don’t get much of their back stories or motivations. Friends and family are completely missing. The FBI and DEA agents that are interviewed are not given the same weight and attention that are given to Tarzan, Almeida, and Yester. Even more tragic: despite the energetic style and numerous funny moments, Russell skips over how the actions of the three devastated communities. Cocaine was a serious problem, and yet we hear nothing about the victims whose addictions paid for their fancy clothes, jewelry, and private planes.
Operation Odessa is certainly a fascinating story. At times my mouth was agape at the audacity of these men’s life choices. This is a depiction of the American Dream without the restraints of morality. But as the credits rolled, I wondered if an hour and half was enough time to give this story the scope it needed to be fully realized.