The prospect of Sacha Baron Cohen playing a secret agent practically begs for a “Borat Does Bond” headline. Surprisingly, Netflix’s The Spy is a very serious story, played completely straight. Even more of a shock, Cohen makes a terrific dramatic lead.
Set during the early 1960s, the series is based on the true story of Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who became a devout Zionist and moved to Israel as a young man. Despite applying and being rejected initially, he was eventually recruited by Mossad to act as the country’s first undercover operative in Syria at a time when tensions between the neighboring nations seemed poised on the brink of war.
Posing as a wealthy businessman with substantial financial resources and a passionate patriotism for Syria, Cohen infiltrated the tightly guarded and secretive country, made friends with important military leaders and politicians, and worked his way into a position of significant influence, all while secretly relaying valuable intelligence back home to Israel. In order to serve his country in this way, Cohen had to abandon his wife and young children for months to years at a time, under the pretense of working abroad as a simple government functionary. Normally a devoted family man, he feels very conflicted about this, but the thrill of being a spy is too enticing for him and his cover identity soon consumes his life.
The more critical intel that Eli sends back to them, the more pleased most of his superiors in the Israeli government are with his performance. For a time, it seems like nothing is too sensitive to be out of his reach. However, his primary handler, Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich from The Americans), recognizes a recklessness in Eli’s behavior, an overzealous desire to please, which he fears will lead to a bad end. A flash-forward in the opening episode suggests that he’s not wrong about that.
Verdict / Grade: A
The Spy was created by producer Gideon Raff, and Netflix no doubt hopes to capitalize on an association with Showtime’s long-running Homeland. Unfortunately, Raff has also been responsible for a couple of less successful TV shows in the meantime (including USA’s rather awful Dig), so his involvement wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality. Nevertheless, the man has some credibility when it comes to telling complicated political and espionage stories involving the Middle East. This turns out to be one of the good ones.
The Spy is more John Le Carré than Jack Ryan. Although it has some fun playing around with vintage spy tech like cameras and tape recorders hidden inside other everyday appliances, the series feels grounded in realism and is patient in telling a complex, adult story. It has no explosions and barely any gunshots, but some of the episodes are almost unbearably suspenseful as we watch Eli put into some precarious situations with grave consequences, many of which are heightened by his own well-meaning but dangerous behavior.
How much of this is true and how much is fictionalized, I’m not qualified to say. A subplot in which Dan takes an unprofessional interest in Eli’s wife feels like it was probably manufactured by the screenwriters to add some soap opera drama. That’s one of the few missteps in an otherwise gripping six-part limited series.
At the center is a knockout performance by Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s sympathetic and engaging, with surprising range playing a modest man seduced by a desire for glory while pretending to be a flamboyant playboy bachelor. I never would’ve guessed the guy had something like this in him. However, thinking about it, the comedian’s history of fully committing to his characters actually prepared him well for serious drama work. I hope he does more of it in the future.