'The Spy': Netflix, Sacha Baron Cohen and the Mossad. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Bibi may approve the new Netflix series about Israel’s most famous spy, but it’s too conventional and takes too many liberties with the truth

Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen in Netflix's "The Spy."
Axel Decis / NETFLIX

Finally, a TV show about Israel that Bibi Netanyahu can get behind! Netflix’s new series, “The Spy,” is everything the HBO show “Our Boys” – which the prime minister recently lambasted in true Trumpian style  – is not: Uncritical, unadventurous and underwhelming. 

The show, which will be available on September 6, recounts the story of Israel’s most famous spy, Eli Cohen, who finagled his way into the upper echelons of Syrian politics in the early 1960s under the fake identity of Kamel Amin Thaabeth. And while the actual events are remarkable, the resultant show is far too conventional and narrow in focus to leave any real impression.

Before reviewing “The Spy,” it is worth considering Netanyahu’s pathetic attack on “Our Boys,” which he laughably accused of being anti-Semitic. An Israeli leader worthy of the name might have noted that while he disputed and was disappointed by the show’s storyline, he was nevertheless proud that a locally produced show was being shown on the world’s most prestigious TV channel and that, more importantly, when you are forever telling the world that your country is the Middle East’s only democracy, astringent, questioning series like this are the “price” you must pay for that honor. 

Netanyahu will have no such qualms about “The Spy” – although if HBO ever finds out about the scandalous Lavon Affair which the Netflix series mentions in passing, that may be another story altogether.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is an oft-quoted line from the John Ford Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and that’s what Gideon Raff has done here. The writer-director, who recently delivered the even more disappointing Mossad thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” spends close to six hours on this story “inspired by true events.” It depicts some crazy incidents that really happened, and some spy-story tropes that are clearly there only to inject more “thrills” into the proceedings – but threaten to make things more farcical than a terrorism workshop with Col. Erran Morad.

The main draw for many viewers worldwide will be the presence of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in the title role (anyone claiming that this is his first straight role has clearly never sat through “The Dictator” or “The Brothers Grimsby,” or indeed his first actual straight role in “Les Misérables”). 

For Israelis, though, the real household name will be Eli Cohen (and some of those houses will be on streets named after him). I first became aware of what a big deal he was in Israel in the mid-’90s, when the first-ever present my future mother-in-law gave me – with obvious Zionist pride – was the Eli Ben-Hanan book “Our Man in Damascus: The Thrilling, Shocking, True Story of Israel’s Most Daring Spy” (the series itself is based on the French book “L’Espion Qui Venait D’Israel,” or “The Spy Who Came From Israel,” by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat). 

So while there will likely be few surprises in “The Spy” for Israelis of a certain age, there will be many for the millions worldwide who either think Eli Cohen used to play soccer for Liverpool or is one of the directors of “The Big Lebowski.” Having said that, one major shock for Israelis will be the apparent presence of sharks in the Sea of Galilee, which the series proceeds to jump over in episode four when it takes noticeably ridiculous liberties with the truth. (Your honor, I am now showing the jury the “Shmuli the farmer” scene.)

From Netflix's "The Spy."
Axel Decis / NETFLIX

Washed-out tones

Cohen’s story has been told on screen before, in the 90-minute, 1987 British drama “The Impossible Spy.” But while Raff’s six-part series spends a lot more time following Cohen, it doesn’t succeed in adding any particular depth. It may be the nature of special agents that we never really “know” their true selves, but “The Spy” never gets close to showing us what makes Cohen tick or drives him to take such risks for his own demonstrably racist country – especially when he is treated like royalty in Syria.  

Glossing over his formative years as an Egyptian Jew (and his small role in the Lavon Affair – that disastrous Israeli plot in 1954 to try to keep the British in Egypt), the show follows Cohen over the six years in which he became Israel’s “man in Damascus.” It faithfully chronicles his passage from eager recruit in Tel Aviv in 1959, to his time in Buenos Aires building his cover as a successful Arab businessman with Syrian parents, and then his arrival in Syria in 1962, where his patronage and extravagant parties buy him friends in high places. 

All of this is contrasted with the drab experience of his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), struggling to raise two children back home alone in Tel Aviv and unaware of her husband’s efforts on behalf of the state. 

Raff largely renders everything in washed-out tones that present the scenes in an almost black-and-white fashion. This may be meant to serve as a callback to the famous monochrome image most tragically associated with Eli Cohen, but it may also just be an attempt to make the series feel like it is set in the ’60s. It doesn’t work if it was the latter, because “The Spy” feels strangely timeless and most definitely not of that era. (The only moment I really felt the show connected with its time was when the Mossad chief, Jacob (Moni Moshonov), is found listening to a radio broadcast that recites the names of “new survivors” found in Europe that week, hoping to hear news about his two missing sisters.)

The show was filmed in Morocco and Hungary, with a lot of on-set work, which also contributes to that sense of blandness – as perhaps befits a show with such a generic title. You never get a sense of the Middle East, despite the soundtrack working overtime with its klezmers and ouds rarely far from assaulting your ears.

The performances are all decent, even if Baron Cohen does look a little too much like his hapless Kazakh creation Borat after he goes undercover by growing a mustache and sporting a suit as Kamel. (Then again, in the surprisingly numerous scenes in which he wears a white vest, he looks like Freddie Mercury in his “I Want to Break Free” phase.) The presence of Noah Emmerich as Eli’s Mossad handler, Dan, unfortunately serves as a reminder of another, far superior show about agents in enemy land, “The Americans,” in which Emmerich plays FBI agent Stan Beeman.

From Netflix's "The Spy."
David Lukacs / NETFLIX

Despite the gripes, I didn’t hate “The Spy” – and I’m sure some people will enjoy it (especially if they don’t know the origin story or find John Le Carré novels too boring). But I was crying out for something that didn’t just present us with a one-sided story about a heroic Israeli spy thwarting dastardly Arabs. There are no politics explored here; no interest in the top-ranking Syrians and their sense of betrayal at having been duped; no real sense of the enmity that must have existed toward the Jewish enemy at the door. Then there’s the young Syrian woman Kamel is pretending to date who is, halakhically speaking, Jewish, but the show has no interest in delving into that potentially fascinating subject, either. 

Oh, there’s also some of the clunkiest dialogue you’ll hear outside of a Netanyahu election campaign ad. Take your pick from the likes of “He’s got something to prove. He wants it too badly”; “I’m a Sephardic woman, I’m not going to let you go home unfed”; and “By making his dreams come true, you have ruined mine.” Don’t worry, there are plenty to go around – but the absolute pick is when a certain Saudi construction magnate called Mohammed bin Laden admonishes his young son, “Osama, I told you to stay inside!” Cerebral, it ain’t.

“Our man in Damascus”? Frustratingly, despite the potential, “The Spy” is more like “Dour man in Damascus.