'The Spy': TV Review

The Spy - Publicity Still - H 2019
Axel Decis/ Netflix
Effective and engaging.

In this Netflix limited series' true-life spy story, Sacha Baron Cohen delivers his best dramatic work yet.

Most well-done spy movies or series have something surprising at their core, and in the case of Netflix's new limited series The Spy, that notable element is that the drama is based on real events, which become more shocking and unfathomable — and riveting — as the story goes on. 

As a bonus, Sacha Baron Cohen (Who Is America?) turns in an exceptionally strong dramatic performance in the lead.

The Spy is a six-part, roughly six-hour series based on the work of real-life Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who went undercover in Syria in the early 1960s. At a crucial time, Cohen got in deeper and was more successful than anyone ever expected, ultimately becoming Israel's most famous spy (there are at least two books about him; this series is based on Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat's The Spy Who Came From Israel).

The project was created, written and directed by Gideon Raff (Homeland, Tyrant), with Max Perry co-writing the final three episodes. Director of photography Itai Neeman adds some lovely touches that help the series, shot in Morocco and Hungary, feel cramped with spy-tracking tension but also expansive.

The series introduces us to Eli, an Egyptian Jew who was instrumental in smuggling a number of Jewish people back to Israel from Egypt, but who at the time the action begins is working a boring job at a department store. His wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Homeland), works as a seamstress for a rich Israeli couple.

Eli and Nadia are struggling but happy. As an Arab, Eli feels the sting of being both an insider and an outsider, which The Spy posits as the reason he applied twice to Mossad. He wants to prove his worth. But the series drops that angle quickly.

As The Spy opens, Israel is reeling from tensions with Syria and the realization that it has no one there who's on the inside. An attack leads the government to push Mossad to infiltrate a spy there, and that's when we meet Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich, The Americans), tasked with making something happen in six months that would normally take two years. Dan is already reeling from the loss of one of his agents, an incident that he feels responsible for. In his state of mind, getting someone into Syria on short notice is not an ideal mission. 

(It should be noted that Emmerich's accent, which might at first seem stilted, passed muster with two Israeli newspaper reviews of the series, so congrats to the actor, who gives yet another stellar performance. Still, it would have been nice if his character had been fleshed out a little bit more.)

Cohen (as another Cohen) is the standout here. The actor is in nearly every scene. It would be ridiculous not to mention that the mustache his character dons when going undercover puts him in Borat territory. His ability to make the audience forget that connection speaks volumes on the excellent work he delivers. Cohen is responsible for all the best parts of The Spy, particularly in later episodes, when the duality of playing the fictitious character Kamel Amin Thaabeth takes a toll on the spy and his life back in Israel.

Mossad comes up with the Kamel identity — an import-export businessman longing to visit Syria for the first time because it's the birthplace of his parents — and sends him to Buenos Aires to cultivate contacts and power and to find a way into Syria, which he eventually does. At its best, the series focuses on Eli/Kamel  who's innately talented but under-trained, according to his handler, Dan and the dangerous decisions he makes to trying to ingratiate himself with locals. There's enough of this DNA in all six episodes to offset less interesting elements involving his marriage and devotion to Nadia (a substory that doesn't quite work) and compensate for some of the structural choices that writer-director Raff makes in the series' more erratic second half. The writing is also hit-and-miss, with all the spy stuff clicking wonderfully and all the emotional elements coming up short.

Playing dual roles with subtle differences, Cohen (who also executive produces) holds the story together. As Kamel, his ability to get close to powerful people like Syrian Col. Amin Al-Hafez (Waleed Zuaiter) allows him to express an awareness of the danger he's in but also pride in how easily most of it is going, especially at the beginning. His evolution from Eli to Kamel is played wonderfully, as is the difficulty he eventually faces. 

Alexander Siddig is particularly effective as Suidani, Col. Al-Hafez's chief security agent, who is suspicious of everybody, particularly Kamel. Siddig embodies a kind of calm menace that few actors can muster.

With only six episodes, The Spy is a particularly quick and riveting story, and all the more impressive given the reality of most of the events depicted. The level of Eli's intelligence work is staggering. Periodically, as when we meet the rich developer Mohamed Bin Laden, you'd hope Raff and Perry wouldn't have to spell out the obvious connection, but they do. Similarly, there are shorthand cliches about duty, country and spying that could have been excised. 

But, flaws aside, this mostly true story of Israel's most famous spy makes for a compelling story, fueled by Cohen's strongest dramatic work yet.

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Noah Emmerich, Waleed Zuaiter, Alexander Siddig
Written by: Gideon Raff and Max Perry
Created and directed by: Gideon Raff
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)