Created by Gideon Raff
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Noah Emmerich
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Netflix show could not be further from what viewers usually expect from him, at least at a surface level. The Spy depicts the tragic, yet powerful true story of one of the most famous Iraeli operatives of all time, Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen). It grants Baron Cohen the perfect role for his ability. This is because, in a way, he is doing what has always worked for him, playing the trickster to undermine the corrupt and powerful.
What made the real Eli so famous was his effectiveness at persuasion and deception in the name of Zionism. As a young man, he smuggled his people out of Egypt to the newly established Israel during a period of rife anti-semitism in the region. By the late 1950s he was on Mossad’s radar, who would eventually recruit him for the purpose of infiltrating the Syrian government and military – and from 1961 to 1965, Eli did just that. Disguised as the wealthy entrepreneur, Kamel Amin Thaabet, Eli attempted to make his way to the very top of Syria’s most powerful circles.
The contrast between Eli and Kamel’s life is impressively illustrated through interchanging colour schemes. In Israel, he lives a simple existence as a lower class man working at a desk job. Colour is mostly absent during this time, then slowly, and literally, it begins to flood his life while living undercover in Syria as the rich and powerful Kamel who is popular and loved. Funded by Israel, Eli is able to climb the social ladder due to his perceived wealth. This is something that makes for an exciting viewing experience, as well as a sobering one, as Eli is able to infiltrate the powerful as he is perceived by them to be wealthy. Thus it’s something many viewers would be able to admit as being symptomatic in their own countries, no matter how different they think it is, compared with somewhere like Syria.
The juxtaposition between his double lives is highlighted further when Eli visits his life back home where his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) and children reside, along with the rest of his family. As Eli’s identity becomes more consumed by Kamel’s, his relationship with his family slowly deteriorates. As a viewer, you feel Eli’s boredom while he’s home, and like a moth to the flame, he can’t help but keep going back to his new life.
While this show from Homeland creator Gideon Raff does start off quite slow, it builds pace as Eli climbs further up the social ladder, digging himself in deeper with the hopes of accessing more sensitive information in his new friends’ offices and homes. We see Eli rub shoulders with notorious figures from the era, such as Saddam Hussein, and even Osama Bin Laden’s father.
Cohen seems to be in his element when he is playing the disguised. It is questionable if this element packs that serious a punch in terms of his performance, causing the viewer to lack emotional stake in Eli. While this is the case, the fact that the show is a true story of a man who may have not even known himself toward the end, scarcity of depth in his character makes sense in a way because the viewer sees life from the real Eli’s many pair of shoes. The Spy is worth the watch for a true story that everyone should know.