Sacha Baron Cohen playing the role of an Israeli spy sounds like the spoof plot of one of his latest comedy projects, but 'The Spy' couldn't be further from his usual on-screen antics as the likes of Ali G, Borat or Bruno.
The laughs are few and far between in this latest six-part spy thriller from Netflix with Sacha Baron Cohen taking the lead as real-life spy Eli Cohen. Mossad agent Cohen went undercover in Syria in the 1960s as a wealthy businessman called Kamel Amin Thaabet to gain insight on their war tactics against Israel. During his time there he formed powerful political alliances and sent back crucial military information to Israel about their neighbouring enemy.
'The Spy' is written and directed by Emmy-winner Gideon Raff, the man behind the series 'Prisoners of War' which was adapted stateside into 'Homeland'. So if military dramas and espionage are your jam, you will enjoy 'The Spy'. It's the kind of story that easily could have been spread across a few seasons, but perhaps wiser to tell it in six hour-long instalments. The pacing works well although it will only be in the second half of the season that you'll truly be hooked. The opening episode is dedicated to showing Eli in his life before becoming Kamel, which is important to understanding him as a character, but you will find yourself willing the how-to-become-a-spy montage to pass quicker.
The show really comes into its own when Eli transforms into Kamel, and it's here too that we see the best of Sacha Baron Cohen in the role. While Eli is unnoticeable and reserved, Kamel oozes charm and charisma and easily wins over even the most powerful of men. (You quickly forget that this is the same man who brazenly sported a mankini around the beaches of America. ) Sacha Baron Cohen has definitely proven there is much more in his arsenal than elaborate pranks. He flexes his acting chops here to give a thoughtful and measured performance of a man that finds himself becoming lost in the persona he has created for himself. An interesting angle for Baron Cohen, of all actors, to explore.
This, of itself, is a major focus on the series, the blurred lines of a double identity as Eli goes from pretending to be Kamel, to later finding himself pretending to be Eli. 'The Spy' is less about James Bond style antics and more about the mental toll this life must have taken on Eli, as well as his family left behind in Israel. Even his Mossad handler, played by Noah Emmerich, is torn over the moral decision of asking someone to do so much for their country, but right or wrong, patriotism always wins the argument.
The story, however, doesn't leave much room for anyone beyond Cohen to have any depth. Hadar Ratzon Rotem, who plays Eli's wife Nadia, only really has room to give a one-note performance as the anxious wife at home. Neither are any of Kamel's Syrian cronies any more than one-dimensional characters. Kamel and Ma'azi's (Nassim Si Ahmed) friendship is by far the most interesting of his relationships in Syria, and the pair have an unexpected heart to heart at one point which is never really followed through in any meaningful way. However, it's clear that this is nobody's story but Eli Cohen's and serves as a celebration of the man rather than any critical assessment of the choices he made and were made for him.
'The Spy', however, is a little too heavy-handed at times with getting its point across. We get that Eli and his wife miss each other and eating bread and butter is their thing, we don't need a cheesy split-screen shot to hammer it home. There's also a certain cameo by a younger well known Arab leader that will have you cringing at the pointedness of it all.
Raff's choice of cinematography may not be to everyone's taste either. 'The Spy' at times almost looks like it's in black and white with how desaturated and colourless it is. This works and it doesn't. It feels more accurate a palatte for the subject matter and indeed the time it is filmed, but at times you almost want to check your TV settings it looks so bland. In other ways, Raff brings the story to life with how words from Eli's morse code sprawl across the screen, a great way to keep the audience in the story but not taking any momentum from the scene.
At just six episodes, 'The Spy' is a compelling watch and is an interesting look a conflict-driven time in the Middle East, ramifications of which are continuing to this day. It may hinge greatly on Baron Cohen's performance, but thankfully, he delivers.