Sacha Baron Cohen Delivers a Compelling Performance in the Netflix Series “The Spy”

George J. Ziogas

Set in the early 60s and based on a true-life espionage story

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Most people know Sacha Baron Cohen as a film and TV comedian — a guy who, among other things, mocks fictitious ex-Soviet bloc states with outrageous impersonations of their leaders. They may be surprised to discover that he is also a capable serious actor as he so clearly demonstrates in the mini-series The Spy.

The series, which is a single narrative split into six episodes, is directed by Gideon Raff and based on the book by Uri Dan and Ben Porat L’espion qui venait d’Israël (The Spy Who Came from Israel). It’s the true espionage story of an ordinary Israeli office worker, Eli Cohen, who is recruited by Mossad. The intelligence service, worried about a likely military attack from Syria, wants to plant a spy among the leaders of that country. Despite the reservations of some of its senior members, Mossad selects Cohen because, though Jewish, he is familiar with the Arab world having been born, raised, and educated in Egypt. He moved to Israel when he was 32.

The early episodes trace Cohen’s initial enthusiasm for the job, a tension filled brush with death in Buenos Aires where he is trying to ingratiate himself with Syrian expatriates, and his apparent change of heart about spying brought on by loneliness and the birth of his child back in Israel. His change of heart is short lived, however, and as the series and the plot develop, so does his enthusiasm for the work.

Some viewers may see Sacha Baron Cohen’s depiction of Eli Cohen as unrealistically over-confident, and be somewhat skeptical about the apparent ease with which he infiltrates the higher tiers of Syrian society. They may also regard parts of the series as clichéd and even inauthentic. Yet, since it’s a true story, these seeming anomalies may just confirm the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction. In any case, they don’t disrupt the story’s momentum.

What may interrupt the momentum, however, is that some episodes seem “padded” with scenes that divert attention from the main plot. For example, the director employs a split-screen technique with Eli Cohen on one side and his wife on the other to emphasize the loneliness experienced by both, separated and unable to communicate for security reasons. No doubt, the series’ producers wanted to inject a sort of journalistic “human interest” element into the story. These emotional diversions, however, temporarily lessen the story’s suspense and could irritate some viewers.

The series is especially fascinating for anyone interested in Middle-Eastern politics of the sixties, especially events leading up to the famous “Six-day War”. Caught-up in the bloody turmoil of a coup d’état, Eli Cohen could easily be identified with the “wrong” side. Since his original posting to Argentina, however, posing as the rich import/export businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet, he had shrewdly nurtured relations with senior members of each of Syria’s main political and military factions.

As a result, he is, for a while at least, on relatively safe ground. Nevertheless, he continues to take hair-raising risks in his quest for military secrets that might be useful to Mossad, while aware that Syria’s own secret police, personified by the dour and chronically suspicious Ahmed Suidani (played by Alexander Siddig), are never too far away.

It is perhaps a credit to the real Eli Cohen’s innate abilities and courage, and a certain naiveté on the Syrians’ part that an ordinary clerk, hastily trained in basic espionage techniques, could pass himself off as a suave, rich businessman and infiltrate the top echelons of Syria’s government.

Whatever the reason, Sacha Baron Cohen faithfully depicts the relatively novice spy with a Bond-like polished self-confidence, enabling the series’ nail-biting tension to constantly build, episode by episode, to its inevitable conclusion. It’s a thrilling, shocking, and educational series that resonates long after the last episode ends. It’s well-worth watching.

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