The Spy review: Netflix series on Israeli agent Eli Cohen is perfect dramatic showcase for Sacha Baron Cohen

Rohini Nair

Sep 16, 2019 15:14:48 IST

The following post contains spoilers for The Spy.

Midway through the fourth episode of the new Netflix limited series The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, I found myself reluctant to go on. Not because the narrative wasn't at an interesting enough point or the episodes thus far had been a letdown — far from it. But the "end" for The Spy's protagonist — Israeli agent Eliyahu Cohen — was nigh, and the prospect was almost too stressful to consider.

The Spy is based on the true story of Eli Cohen, who successfully infiltrated the highest echelons of Syrian society and government during the first half of the 1960s, feeding valuable information back to his home country of Israel before being found out and executed. Cohen's carefully nurtured 'friendships' with Damascus' elite helped him gain access to not just classified files, but also the strategic defense installation at Golan Heights, which Israel successfully captured from Syria (two years after Cohen's death) in the 1967 Six Day War. This was possible in large part due to the intelligence provided by Cohen.

Cohen's fate is amply evident in the initial few minutes of the very first episode of The Spy (even if one isn't aware of his real-life story). We see him seated in a cell, accompanied by a rabbi, writing a last letter to his wife Nadia; his hands provide a sign of the torture he has been subjected to — his fingernails are missing, only bloody flesh remains.

 The Spy review: Netflix series on Israeli agent Eli Cohen is perfect dramatic showcase for Sacha Baron Cohen

Poster for The Spy. Netflix

But still, as the narrative then lays out the sequence of events that led to that point — Cohen's everyday existence in Israel, his selection by the Mossad, his taking on the persona of Kamel Amin Thaabet and inveigling his way into the Syrian emigre circles in Buenos Aires, before making his way into Syria itself and living there over years as he becomes more and more dangerously entangled in its power circles — your heart stops with every risk he takes to fulfill his mission.

When he steals into the office of Syrian politician Amin al-Hafiz (who will later become the country's President after a violent coup), you want to scream at Cohen not to take such risks. When he's moving through a top-secret defense facility — where being discovered would mean death — your nerves are stretched to their clichéd breaking point. And even knowing full well how his dreaded denouement will come, you find yourself wishing that some miraculous, last-minute reprieve is in store.

Most of The Spy's compelling force comes from its lead actor. As Eli, Sacha Baron Cohen plays doting husband, a department store clerk meant for better things, an Egyptian-born Jew, with ease. If he's likeable as Eli, however, he's magnetic as Kamel. And as a man who is shifting between two identities and whose survival depends on how well he keeps those separate, Baron Cohen is riveting.

The Spy — created and directed by Gideon Raff (Homeland) — takes some time to get into its groove. But as Eli transforms into Kamel, and begins his high-stakes espionage work, the series comes into its own. To begin with, in his eagerness to be considered a success by his handlers at Mossad, he makes a few clumsy missteps. His anxiety at his precarious situation is barely held at bay. But as he becomes more sure-footed, he is able to shrug off those early problems. To see Kamel schmooze and turn his newfound connections into steps leading to his ultimate goal is very engrossing — and what makes the series as a whole tick.

Away from the glamour of Sacha Baron Cohen as Kamel, The Spy stumbles. The supporting cast, despite its roster of well-established actors, is dwarfed (literally and figuratively) quite a bit by Baron Cohen. Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, as Nadia Cohen, brings the requisite grace to the role of Eli's wife — a gifted seamstress who struggled to raise their children while her husband was away on missions she knew nothing about. Noah Emmerich plays Eli's conflicted handler Dan, engaged in a tug of war between the demands of national security and the safety of his agent. And there is Nassim Si Ahmed as Ma'azi — a Syrian soldier Kamel befriends because his uncle is among the Army's highest ranking generals. Ahmed plays Ma'azi with a mixture of brashness and vulnerability that is very appealing; the highs of his friendship with Kamel (Ma'azi is instrumental in bringing Kamel to Golan Heights — among the more visually arresting scenes in The Spy — as well as in introducing him to his uncle) do not prepare him for the lows (Kamel discards him once his ends are achieved).

There are several elements that do not work in The Spy: the text that is superimposed on the visuals every time a letter is written or a message sent; the numerous scenes depicting Nadia and Eli eating bread and butter — meant to depict the day-to-day experience they are still connected by despite the geographical distance between them; the inclusion of an exchange between Mohammed bin Laden (who is helping construct the top-secret defense facility of Shallah for Syria) and his little son Osama, which at best is a sort-of-interesting-but-also-gratuitous aside; the black and white depiction of the Syrians and Israelis; the awkward accents of some of the actors.

But you're hard pressed to remember these bumpy patches by the end of the series. As Kamel becomes firmly entrenched in Damascene society, it is his life in Israel that begins to seem unreal to him. In Syria, he is an important man, moving only in the swishest circles. In Israel, he is insignificant. His betrayals as Kamel — as he helps the Ba'ath party to come to power in Syria — begin to haunt Eli. Home on a rare debriefing break, he has nightmares about Ma'azi and the other people he has used. When he returns to Syria as Kamel for that last and fateful time, his clothes as Eli are shed carelessly on the floor, almost like moulted skin.

Eli Cohen's daughter has said that the Netflix series has some historical inaccuracies, but that she was impressed by Sacha Baron Cohen's performance, overcoming initial misgivings given that the Borat star is known more as a great comic actor. After The Spy, there can be no doubt that Baron Cohen is a great actor, period.

Rating: ★★★ and 1/2
Duration: Six episodes, an hour long each

The Spy is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2019 15:14:48 IST