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From Israel, with love

  • 'The Spy’ is based on the true story of celebrated Mossad operative Eli Cohen
  • As the lead, Sacha Baron Cohen turns on calmness and charm in equal measure

A still from the movie.
A still from the movie.

Spies need to hide in plain sight. The act of subterfuge relies on the ability to play up preconception. Camouflage only works when those who look closely are too distracted to know where they ought to look. Some expectations need to be met, while others must be dramatically subverted. For instance, in The Spy, Noah Emmerich—best known to audiences as FBI agent Stan Beeman, the most American character on a show called The Americans—shows up as an Israeli intelligence officer. And here’s the fait accompli: Sacha Baron Cohen, inevitably and forever remembered as Borat, keeps the straightest of faces.

The Spy, written and directed by Gideon Raff, thus catches us off guard right out of the gate. The intense but slow-roasting Netflix show is based on the remarkable true story of highly celebrated Mossad operative Eli Cohen. Set in Israel and Syria at the start of the 1960s, the six-part miniseries tells the compelling story of an Israeli secret agent who, staying cool and collected, managed to infiltrate Syria all too deeply. It’s too good to be made up.

In an absolute masterstroke, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen. This is stunt casting at its sharpest, allowing a chameleon to continue playing to his strengths even as the genre shifts drastically from brutally funny satire to serious thriller. A gifted comedian with marvellous timing, the actor has proved himself as a master of disguise, evidenced by his prolific hoaxing of celebrities and civilians on shows and films like Ali G Indahouse, Borat (Hotstar), Brüno and Who Is America? (Hotstar). Watching Cohen persuade and provoke politicians and gun nuts into absurdity makes it clear he is already good at spy-craft.

In this show, Cohen turns on calmness and charm in equal measure, his smiles inscrutable and his silences intense. His eyes appear suitably alert and haunted, while his body does the talking. Convincing in well-cut suits and as a dashing man about town, the actor’s body language changes through the series to accommodate his evolving status. He wears his lankiness as an accoutrement, flapping about uselessly at first, as if clumsily folded, but then, as he trains and hardens, more assured about his long-limbedness. By the time he’s ready, he’s silken.

As this taut series demonstrates, there may be such a thing as a spy who is too good. The show repeatedly uses the words “too eager" as a warning, since an overtly enthusiastic operative is likely to draw attention to himself. With this acting vehicle, Cohen does indeed seem a touch too keen to embrace the dramatic, and while this is a meticulously calibrated performance, there is a touch of self-consciousness, as if he is trying hard not to be funny. This is not a fault of performance but of character. Despite his extraordinary feats, the character is straightforward, committed and largely free of conflict. All this agent yearns for is a faraway wife, whom he muses on whenever reaching for his butter dish.

Despite the hero’s arc refusing to bend, the show grips hard. Gideon Raff—creator of Israeli series Prisoners Of War (adapted as hit US thriller Homeland)—forgoes hysterics and keeps this finite series dry and fascinating. The cinematography is starkly desaturated, like washed-up old videotape, or looking through air oppressively heavy with dust. I was unfamiliar with this political intrigue but got hooked early. The lines are loaded, with talk of brown-skinned Jews treated like Arab outsiders, or dead Syrian soldiers dressed in Israeli uniforms. It is an alarming time. Civilians are offered up for a guest to shoot. Presidents are executed in their pyjamas.

The Spy feels closer to John le Carré than it does to Ian Fleming, but there is an ease with which Cohen bites into his expense account, as he buys unforgivably expensive wine on yachts and wears suits cut so well they make generals envious. He throws lavish shindigs on command and, as we all know, a truly successful party is nothing short of a coup.

This is a one-man story, and while it brings to light the extraordinary story of Mossad’s Eli Cohen, The Spy belongs to this other Cohen. There is something mesmerizing about a performer who allows people to tell him things they aren’t supposed to. Something that makes us trust him. The man who once attempted to talk a confession out of former American football player O.J. Simpson—and came shockingly close (Who Is America?, season 1, episode 7)—is clearly good at winning people over. It’s all about the bond.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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