The Spy puts Sacha Baron Cohen in a darkly gripping, real-life tale of espionage, following the life of Egyptian-born Eli Cohen. The story traces his infiltration into the highest ranks of the Syrian government in the early 1960s, providing Israeli intelligence agency Mossad with a hitherto unprecedented level of detail regarding the Syrian regime. I should state from the outset that, while there’s no known link between the Jewish actor and his Egyptian-Israeli character, it’s an excellent match which brings posture and gravitas to the sobering role.
The Spy (Netflix miniseries)
Director: Gideon Raff
Release date: September 9, 2019
Like many, I was drawn to The Spy owing to the quality of the filmmaking and the convenience of streaming on Netflix. Say what you will about the streaming wars, but in the hustle at least Netflix is generating high-quality content with a quick turnaround. I wonder whether the fast-food approach is the most sustainable, but if it brings stars like Cohen into the mix, it’s not a bad thing for viewing stats.
Cohen initially startles in the role because we’re so used to him parading as other, more provocative characters. In Borat, he went undercover as a Kazhak journalist in the US. In Who Is America?, he played a whole spectrum of characters, each varying in outlook. Adopting other personas has become second-nature to him — so taking on the role of Eli Cohen/Kamel Amin Thaabet is noteworthy because it seems so out of character. To play someone forced into a masquerade, the film takes on a meta role and causes us to question the nature of performance on personality.
The story itself is told in retrospect -as a flashback-, so we know about Cohen’s fate from the outset. Throughout the course of six episodes, though, it’s easy to forget about what lies ahead and to get immersed in the narrative. Happily married to Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), Eli is a gifted worker at his administrative job, executing tasks flawlessly and in record time. Despite his pleasant lot in life, he’s visibly unfulfilled. While his co-workers happily chat and socialize during their lunch breaks, Eli is restless, his mind on other things.
We soon find out that he might be a match for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Eli doesn’t lack ambition — he’s applied and been rejected numerous times — but when they need to train an agent on a mission considered too dangerous for the staff already on board, a secretive partnership begins. Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich) leads the training and soon realizes that he’s dealing with an individual who has greater potential than anybody he has trained before.
We learn plenty about the characters during the pilot and the second episode through economical devices — a ticking clock reflects Eli’s sharp and perceptive nature, a montage of Eli and Nadia show they’re deeply in love. The narrative is characterized by a consciously stylized color palette that indicates not only the spatial and temporal positioning of the characters but also acts as a pathetic fallacy. My criticism would be that sometimes the filters are much too self-aware, particularly throwing into relief the different situations as Eli embarks on a double-life.
Eli poses as a wealthy businessman named Kamel Amin Thaabet who first travels to Buenos Aires in order to cultivate the influence and contacts he needs to travel to Syria. However thin he may initially feel his guise is, he soon settles into it and even learns to enjoy it. Feeling like an outsider back home in Israel — his wife’s wealthy employers only cementing his perceived inadequacy — it’s a welcome change for Eli to steer his own fate.
Some criticism has been directed towards the accents in the series, but it didn’t have an effect on my reading of the material. Changing locations are clearly signposted and it’s easy to pick up on the action based on conversations. A few near-misses tangibly ramp up the tension, but for the most part, Gideon Raff has directed the narrative in such a manner that you become sold on the idea of Kamel’s success. The two alter-egos begin to blend into one, and it becomes unclear where Eli ends and Kamel begins.
It would also be unfair not to mention the set and costume design, which evokes a wonderful 1960s aesthetic in every country depicted. Netflix’s deep pockets are evident through The Spy’s significant SFX budget, and somehow the streets of Damascus feel unsafe even when watching. The palpable tension feels authentic only because all the elements work together — including a 1.4L Peugeot 404 in pristine condition used to ferry Kamel across the Syrian border, and a wire-clad government van doing rounds in the streets on the lookout for traitors.
The stakes get higher as Kamel’s interactions with Argentinian and Syrian figures becomes stronger and more intense. What’s most conflicting is his genuine friendship with those in power — though the extent of the alliance with Amin al-Hafez, who would later become Syria’s president, is exaggerated somewhat by the writers. One bizarre moment takes place between Kamel and Mohamed Bin Laden when his young, smiling son Osama comes running up to the adults talking. If this is an attempt to humanize a future dictator, it’s the wrong way of going about it.
Something I would have liked to have changed is the visible lack of chemistry between some of Mossad’s central characters. I never particularly warmed to the agents that were more concerned for the operations of their mission than they were for Eli’s safety — it’s all part of the operation, granted, but they lacked even a grain of sympathy that would have humanized them a little.
Instead, all this retrospective guilt was plowed into the conscience of Dan, who seemed to lay on the emotions too thick. It sometimes feels unbalanced to the point of being contrived. Yet, the through-line of Eli and Nadia and the strain of his secrecy on their marriage and young family seems more legitimate. Anyone in such an extreme situation would experience the same, and that’s what makes the characters so sympathetic and their losses so difficult.
While many of the reviews of the series released within a few days of its Netflix appearance, I think giving the series time and space to breathe is important in grasping its full ramifications. We’re not talking about throwaway entertainment — this is a real-life story with consequences for a living family. Indeed, to give a spoiler alert to something that happened almost half a century ago would seem redundant, but the narrative is constructed in a way that encourages suspension of disbelief and a willingness for characters to succeed, even when it seems bleak. The Spy, despite some flaws, is a well-executed, thoughtful thriller, an impressive offering from Netflix’s recent slate.