‘The Spy’: Sacha Baron Cohen Shines as a Sexy, Zionist James Bond
The new Netflix series sees the funnyman flex his dramatic chops—with thrilling results.
Duality is at the heart of The Spy, which concerns a man pretending to be someone else, a wife mourning her happy past while enduring her solitary present, and a military handler caught between conviction and regret, duty and desire.
Moreover, it stars a world-famous comedian in a dramatic role unlike any he’s tackled before.
Sacha Baron Cohen, he of Da Ali G Show, Borat, Bruno and Who is America? fame, takes a surprising turn into international-intrigue territory with Netflix’s new six-part miniseries from Gideon Raff (premiering Friday, Sept. 6), which like the director’s most recent streaming effort, July’s The Red Sea Diving Resort, is a period piece about Mossad agents going undercover behind enemy lines. It is, to say the least, a far cry from its lead’s trademark satirical stunts.
As Eli Cohen, a 1960s operative who infiltrated Syria, became the Deputy Minister of Defense, and relayed key intel that aided his homeland during the Six-Day War, Cohen is the unquestionable calling card of this inspired-by-true-events tale. His impressively restrained and charismatic performance helps this suspenseful saga transcend its more conventional moments, turning it into a character study about an individual torn between two worlds and identities, and a gripping account of the sacrifices sometimes required by patriotic service.
Eli’s covert work for Israel in Syria ended in tragic fashion, and The Spy foreshadows that fate from its opening 1965 moments, in which the bruised and blooded spy writes a final letter in a jail cell, and a rabbi, upon seeing that Eli is hesitating to sign it, remarks, “You do not know who you are.” The struggle to maintain one’s sense of self is paramount throughout the series, which—after a bit of metaphorical moth-to-the-flame business that’s shrewdly abandoned until the finale—subsequently leaps six years backwards to find Eli working at a department store. Having participated in spy missions on behalf of the Israeli government when he was still living in Egypt, Cohen yearns to make a difference. After a number of attacks on the Israeli-Syrian border, he gets his chance when he’s recruited by Mossad bigwig Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich, returning to the espionage arena following The Americans).
Dan is initially uncertain about Eli, less because the man isn’t capable but because his eagerness and confidence remind Dan of a former agent he put in harm’s way, to horrific ends. Nonetheless, as evidenced by a jaunty sequence in which he learns to master the tricks of his intelligence trade, Eli proves a fast learner, and it’s not long before he’s sent to Buenos Aires to pose as Kamel Amin Thaabet, a wealthy Syrian businessman desperate to relocate to Damascus, the dearly beloved home of his father. Decked out in one dashing suit after another (be it striped or all-white), Cohen strikes a suave pose. And though his mustache invariably recalls that of Freddie Mercury—a role the actor had coveted, before Rami Malek assumed it in Bohemian Rhapsody—the iconic figure he most deliberately resembles here is 007.
Deft as he is with the ladies, however, Eli is no James Bond, and Cohen refuses to render him merely a debonair playboy. The actor embodies his protagonist with outward poise but internal doubt, guilt and confusion, the latter born from the fact that the longer he remains undercover, the blurrier the line becomes between Eli and Kamel. Although one sometimes instinctively expects him to revert back to his clownish ways during action-oriented moments, the star fully inhabits Eli as a Zionist valiantly trying to hold onto who he is—an endeavor complicated by the seductive wealth, influence and power possessed by his alter ego.
Raff visualizes his hero’s interior division via plentiful mirror imagery, and he underscores the differences between Eli's two milieus by bathing his Argentinian and Syrian exploits in bold colors and coating all Israeli-set scenes in hues that first look sun-bleached, and then downright ashen. Written letters and telegraph messages appear as text on environmental objects (or in the air), and the director delivers one canny split-screen—during a heated soccer match—to underscore the sense of home, togetherness, and unity that Eli craves, but is denied by his clandestine task. While far from aesthetically daring, The Spy employs such touches to emphasize its main character’s increasingly fraught condition.
That doesn’t mean The Spy doesn’t fall into something of a clichéd rut; there are quite a few sequences (involving skulking around locked offices in order to photograph documents) that any casual genre fan will find familiar. The series thrives, however, when concentrating on Eli’s specific methods of ingratiating himself with given marks, including Colonel Amin Al-Hafez (Waleed Zuaiter), who rises to the presidency after a bloody coup that Eli facilitates. Cohen’s smooth-talking magnetism is vital to making these scenes work, as well as those in which he manipulates others in order to both glean insight into, and thwart, Syria’s antagonistic plans, highlighted by a canny ruse involving a Colonel’s wild nephew (Nassim Si Ahmed), a network of underground military facilities, and a gift of eucalyptus trees.
“The world doesn’t care if we live or die. And if we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will,” says a Mossad boss early in The Spy, and that bedrock belief is what drives both Dan and Eli to risk so much for their country, even if the potential costs are catastrophic. Raff’s nuanced treatment of these two men isn’t matched by his portrait of Nadia, whose suffering is empathetically detailed, but who never rises above being an archetypal miserable-abandoned wife. In asides about Nadia’s relationship with her employer, the show can feel a bit sketchy, and that’s even more pronounced whenever Colonel Al-Hafez’s security chief Suidani (Alexander Siddig) is around, eyeing Eli suspiciously like every sharp right-hand man in spy-cinema history.
Luckily, Cohen’s multifaceted turn takes center stage throughout, keeping the focus squarely on Eli’s battle within. As far as espionage games go, The Spy doesn’t rewrite the rules, but it does suggest that its star is more than up to the dramatic leading-man challenge.
For more, listen to Sacha Baron Cohen on The Last Laugh podcast below.