The comedian known for his outrageous undercover stunts gives a surprisingly effective performance as a real-life Israeli spy in Netflix's new limited series.
The Spy
Credit: Axel Decis/Netflix

If you’ve ever watched a season (or an episode) of Homeland and thought to yourself, What in the hell is going ON?, the opening sequence of Netflix’s The Spy will feel frustratingly familiar. The first two minutes feature a series of fragmented scenes: A man exiting a plane in Paris at night; a woman startling awake in her Tel Aviv bedroom; a phone ringing in a Mossad field office; an elderly Rabbi being roused from his sleep by soldiers in Damascus; and finally, a gloomy jail cell in Syria, where captured Israeli spy Eli Cohen sits, awaiting his imminent death.

It takes six episodes to feel the full import of that hectic opening montage, but The Spy — written and directed by Gideon Raff (Homeland) and starring Sacha Baron Cohen as real-life agent Eli Cohen (no relation) — is a tense thriller that rewards viewer patience. And Baron Cohen, known best for his outrageous comedy, delivers a surprisingly effective dramatic performance as the Egyptian ex-patriot who became an essential asset in Israel’s war against Syria before being executed for espionage in 1965.

It’s 1959, and Eli Cohen is a happily-married man working as an accountant in a Tel Aviv department store when he receives a mysterious note from the Mossad. The intelligence agency is desperate to find an operative to infiltrate the Syrian government within six months, and Eli — who applied twice to be a Mossad agent in the past but was rejected — is eager to accept the mission. What follows is an honest-to-God spy training montage, as Eli’s handler Dan Peleg (The AmericansNoah Emmerich) puts his recruit through rigorous drills in sending Morse code, memorizing Syrian military officials, and spotting undercover agents in a crowd. By the end of The Spy’s first hour, Eli Cohen has transformed into Kamel Amin Thaabeth, a wealthy Syrian textile magnate whose goal is to return to, and invest in, his homeland. Telling his beloved wife Nadia (Homeland’s Hadar Ratzon Rotem) that he’s taken a job as a buyer for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Cohen gets on a plane and begins his new life.

The real Eli Cohen spent four extremely productive years in the Syrian capital of Damascus, and each episode of The Spy leaps ahead in time as Kamel ingratiates himself further into the upper echelons of Syrian political and military society. Dressed in bespoke suits and sporting a neatly-trimmed mustache, Baron Cohen conveys the easy charm of Kamel, a rich, glad-handing businessman, as well as Eli’s over-eager bravado, which sometimes leads the agent to make dangerous missteps. Dan’s fear that Eli may not have been ready for the mission is justified, as the agent takes risk after risk, breaking into locked offices and sending Morse-code messages to Israel from his apartment while Kamel’s new friend, a high-ranking Syrian soldier (Nassim Si Ahmed), lays passed-out drunk in the next room.

The Spy is only “inspired by” Eli’s real life, and to this date, there is still some dispute about which of his many achievements are real, and which have been exaggerated into legend. Raff’s narrative blends Cohen’s most notable triumphs — like the agent’s invaluable tour of a Syrian army post in the Golan Heights — with some more TV-friendly action sequences, as when Eli hops on the back of a Syrian military truck and successfully infiltrates a top-secret facility. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, Nadia waits months for Eli’s brief visits, and raises their two daughters on her own. Both Raff and Baron Cohen struggle the most during the series’ more emotional moments, like an overwrought scene where Eli, longing for Nadia, hurls all of the food out of his refrigerator and collapses on the floor, cry-eating bread and butter.

But these stumbles are minor, and The Spy unspools an intense tale of suspense, building to a conclusion that is as devastating as it is inevitable. With Homeland‘s best days behind it (and its final season not premiering until 2020), fans will find Raff’s latest Spy a satisfying binge. As it turns out, all of those years Baron Cohen spent perfecting his art of comedic subterfuge made him a natural to play Eli Cohen, a man whose life literally depended on his ability to stay in character. B

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