Sacha Baron Cohen Shows off His Dramatic Side in Netflix’s True-Life Espionage Thriller ‘The Spy’

Sacha Baron Cohen shows us a completely different side of himself in Netflix’s limited series “The Spy.” By playing real-life Israeli operative Eli Cohen, the actor best known for his satirical farces, shows off his capacity for transformation. We recognize Baron Cohen instantly, not as Borat or Ali G, but as a focused man on a mission that could prove fatal. He is the best thing in a production that is oddly more surface than depth. Like the main character the directing has no time to question anything and is a straight arrow all the way through. But it is a gripping tale nonetheless.

It’s the mid-1960s and Eli Cohen (Baron Cohen) is an Egyptian-born Jew now living in Israel with his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem). Working in sales, Cohen at times feels the discrimination of whiter Israelis towards those from Arab countries. But he is a patriot who has applied before to the Mossad. His chance arrives when the Syrian government carries out air raids on Israeli kibbutz communities near the border and it is decided that an infiltrator is needed to gather intelligence. Cohen is recruited by Mossad official Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich), who trains him in the ways of counterintelligence, forming new identities and detecting pursuers. A plan is set in motion to send Cohen into Syria under the false identity of a wealthy businessman named Kamel. Once in Damascus Cohen, with his new name, begins cultivating key friendships with local elites and regime figures, including Col. Amin al-Hafez (Waleed Zuaiter), who helps Cohen rise within a world where a coup could switch rulers at any moment. But Cohen also begins to feel the strain of living between two worlds, the party-loving businessman in Syria and a family man in Israel. Nadia is also unaware of what exactly her husband does in his new job, or the danger his life is now in.

Spread out into six episodes, “The Spy” is a slick new miniseries with the mindset of an old school thriller. This is director Gideon Raff’s second major production for Netflix having earlier this year directed the movie “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” That was also a vintage thriller about heroic Israeli spooks who helped smuggle Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It had the complete feel of a classic 80s action movie, full of patriotism and testosterone. “The Spy” is more patient and even somber, shot in drained colors and emphasizing tension over action. The first chapters follow Cohen as he must not only do away with his more gentle civilian manners, but also shake off his mushy habits regarding his wife. He first travels to Switzerland and Argentina before going to Syria and is blocked from writing constant love letters. Raff, a writer on “Homeland,” is fascinated by tales of espionage, but not much by the details. Cohen’s training is covered in speedy fashion as Peleg walks him through a market and expects him to catch a tail, or Cohen will sit in front of a projector and quickly memorizes specific names and gadgets. The story grows more complex once Cohen becomes Kamel and must maneuver through Damascus’s high society. 

It is in the Syrian sections that Baron Cohen truly shows off his talent for serious material. He is what really gives the series weight. Never do we get a hint of Baron Cohen the comedian from “The Dictator” or “Who Is America.” He takes on the chameleon task of becoming a refined, slick impersonator, channeling Kamel as an astute businessman who buys drinks for Syrian officials, hosts lavish parties and kids around with soldiers. At times he seems to glide out of a Patricia Highsmith or John Le Carre novel, floating in elegant suits and then sending out Morse code messages to his Israeli superiors huddled in an apartment. What makes Baron Cohen’s performance more startling is its straight forwardness. Cohen the spy isn’t written with the complexity of, say, the Mossad assassins in Spielberg’s “Munich.” He never questions the mission, he never weeps over missing Nadia. Even when a Syrian official’s wife grabs his nether regions he doesn’t flinch. That’s how devoted to flag and country he is. The brilliance of the performance is its nuances. Baron Cohen convincingly creates two characters in this series, doing justice to how difficult the real Cohen’s job was. 

There’s a bit more complexity to side characters like Peleg, who begins to grow suspiciously close to Nadia out of sympathy for her aloofness to what’s going on. The film’s politics are treated very simply however, almost as if Raff assumes most viewers will know the intricacies of Israeli foreign policy at the time or the reasoning behind Syria’s hostile attitude. Like a 50s movie all you need to know is the Syrians are the bad guys. Where the movie does become more insightful about the times is in the way it explores divisions within Israeli society, and how Cohen feels discriminated against for being born in an Arab country. But Raff does fill the scenery with likeable supporting roles later within the enemy camp. Cohen makes friends with Syrian figures who we like for their feistiness, like Sheik Majid Al Ard (Uri Gavriel), who laughs at Cohen stopping a search of his luggage at the border by claiming there’s porn amongst his clothing. There are also some memorable villains, like Syrian security official Suidani (Alexander Siddig) who prowls the streets in search of spies and begins to close a net around Cohen.

A series like “The Spy” benefits from how the story it tells is true even in its grandest twists. Cohen did move up the ladder of Syrian society, even becoming a high level security adviser, all the while collecting data on Syrian military preparations. The series is never less than fascinating when it goes into the smaller details of how Cohen smuggled information to Tel Aviv, or set up business fronts and seduced friendships. Raff does however slightly shy away from getting too much into claims that Cohen also collected quite the gallery of lovers. The last episode is the most wrenching as the regime moves in and Cohen finds himself facing a terrible fate. You can Wikipedia how the spy’s story ends, but it shouldn’t be revealed here. 

Above all “The Spy” is intriguing and full of suspense generated from Baron Cohen’s impressive performance. A lesser actor might have made this material bland but he brings a razor sharp focus and elegance. Once tapped to play Freddie Mercury, now he delivers by playing a different sort of performer, one who puts on a show in the shadows. It’s a thriller about those who make history by surrendering their identity.

The Spy” begins streaming Sept. 6 on Netflix.