Sacha Baron Cohen triumphs as Eli Cohen in Netflix’s The Spy

The series, which will be released on September 6th, has the typically comidec actor portraying the serious story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen.

The Spy Sacha Baron Cohen (photo credit: AXEL DECIS)
The Spy Sacha Baron Cohen
(photo credit: AXEL DECIS)
There can be no greater praise for Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as the legendary Israeli intelligence agent Eli Cohen in the upcoming Netflix series The Spy than to say that after the first few minutes, I never thought about Borat once.
Gangly, ambitious and often shocked by his own daring, Cohen the comedian makes Cohen the spy into a compelling character, with no winks or gimmicks. The British actor best known for playing outlandish characters he created such as Borat and Ali G seamlessly makes the transition to drama here.
Like the recent Netflix film, The Red Sea Diving Resort, which was also created and directed by Gideon Raff (who is known as well for Prisoners of War and Homeland), The Spy is based on a story that is so outlandish it would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. Try telling the basic outline to someone who’s never heard of Eli Cohen and you’ll see how absurd it sounds: An Egyptian-born immigrant to Israel, Cohen went undercover as an importer/exporter in Syria in the early 1960s and cultivated contacts in the highest echelons of the Syrian elite and government. According to The Spy and to many reports, he was actually offered the post of deputy to the Syrian defense minister.
As this six-part series details and the legend goes, his intelligence led to Israel stopping Syria from building a nuclear program and helped Israel know just where to attack during the Six Day War. But his success couldn’t last and he was discovered and hanged in 1965.
The series, which will be released on September 6, opens with a rabbi visiting Cohen in prison just before his execution, so I can’t be accused of revealing any spoilers here. The series goes back to trace how Cohen got to that prison cell, and in spite of an often unimaginative script, it’s an interesting story. The series portrays Cohen as a department store clerk and devoted husband who had no idea what he was getting into when he was recruited by the Mossad to spy in Syria, although according to numerous sources, he had already done espionage work for the Mossad in Egypt.
The Cohen portrayed in the series is a virtuous family man who doesn’t enjoy a moment of his work but does it nevertheless to help Israel, and who had flawless instincts about when to go rogue and take advantage of coincidences to deepen his relationships with Syrian military officials, politicians and their families.
Much of the personal drama in the story is how sorry he is over abandoning his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), and growing family in Israel and how much she missed him and how difficult it was for her to go it alone. The parts of the series set in Israel are filmed in washed-out color, almost black and white, while the scenes set in Syria are in more vivid color, a curious choice that doesn’t seem to add much to the drama, except that when he thinks longingly of Nadia, she appears in full color.
Cohen is portrayed in the beginning as having a chip on his shoulder about his Mizrahi heritage. “You know what they see when they look at me?” he asks Nadia. “An Arab, that’s it. Jewish, yes. But just an Arab.” She lovingly replies, “Yes, but you’re my Arab.” After the opening episode, the theme of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi conflict is pretty much dropped.
Assorted Israeli, Arab and European actors appear in a universe in which everyone speaks English, including the glowering Uri Gavriel as a Syrian businessman; Tim Seyfi as wealthy entrepreneur Mohammad Bin Laden, whose young son Osama has a cameo; Yousef “Joe” Sweid, who plays a news announcer and whose mustache reminded me of his recent role as a soap opera star in Tel Aviv on Fire; Nassim Si Ahmed, who plays a playboy nephew of an important Syrian general, one of the most likable characters in the series; and Moni Moshonov as a top Mossad official.
Cohen’s handler is played by Noah Emmerich, whom fans of the Americans will remember fondly as the genial but usually clueless FBI agent Stan Beeman. I guess the thinking was that he knows how to play an intelligence official, although the white bread Stan is a far cry from Emmerich’s The Spy character, Dan Peleg, who has brown hair, a mournful look and a pretty good Israeli accent.
The dialogue is laden with earnest clichés such as Moshonov’s utterance, “Time was never on our side,” when the going gets rough. But as has occurred to me watching these fact-based Netflix dramas before, they are aimed at young viewers who have never seen spy movies before and aren’t familiar with or bored by these tropes.
It seems that Netflix is now specializing in dramas based on recent Israeli history, with this release of The Spy following The Red Sea Diving Resort and The Angel, which was about an Egyptian spying for Israel. Given that, I’d like to suggest the next true stories from Israeli history – which happen to be connected – that can be dramatized: Wolfgang Lutz, the so-called “Champagne Spy,” a German Jew who posed as a high-living former Nazi in Egypt in the early 1960s and obtained intelligence information about former Nazi scientists who were trying to help Arab countries build nuclear programs; and the Lavon Affair (which is referenced in The Spy), in which Israeli intelligence recruited naive young Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in British and American targets in Egypt, hoping their bomb attacks would be seen as the work of anti-Western extremists. If Gideon Raff is reading this, he’ll probably sell the idea to Netflix by the end of the week.