Sacha Bara Cohen, a man well-known for his comedic roles, took a deep dive undercover for his latest project— a Netflix miniseries following Israeli spy Eli Cohen’s involvement in the Israeli-Syrian conflict of the ‘60s.
”The Spy” chronicles Cohen’s entire journey from department store clerk to top undercover agent in six episodes of the most serious content possible. It’s somber for good reason— the storyline is based on a true one, one that ends in tragedy.
Eli Cohen is a patriot, hard worker and loving husband to his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), but he wants more of his life than employment at a department store. He applied time and time again to be a spy but was rejected each time because he seemed too eager to fill the role, a recipe for disobedience.
When Israel needs a man planted in Damascus quickly, handler Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich) has no choice but to select someone previously weeded out. Eli Cohen arrives, he becomes Kamel Amin-Thaabath, his cover, and quickly exceeds all expectations.
Thaabeth fills the role of a wealthy businessman and travels to Buenos Aires to establish connections and find a way to make it through the borders of Syria. All the while his wife is at home, pregnant and under the impression that her husband accepted a new job as a trader for the government.
Eventually, he finds his way in and builds his credibility with various higher-ranking Syrian officials, all the while recording and transmitting information back to Israel.
As Thaabeth, Cohen faces a multitude of conflicts and close calls that place the show firmly in the category of ‘thriller,’ but he handles each with the intelligence and awareness necessary to be a spy. His fatal quality is his initiative, a characteristic that both assists in and hinders his success.
The storyline is understandably complex, seeing as it's a true story following a very convoluted history of war and conflict between two nations. Some previous knowledge of this true story could be helpful in decoding each episode, but it’s definitely not necessary.
With that being said, it‘s not a great show for casual viewing either. It’s very plot heavy with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it twists and turns happening each episode, so there’s little opportunity to scroll through social media or make dinner with this as background noise.
At a few points, it becomes difficult to not wish it wasn’t so dense.
Sacha Baron Cohen is by no means a bad actor, but he often struggles with portraying the full depth of serious characters.
Cohen is a man playing the role of Thaabeth, a role he’s being trained to adopt fully as his own identity. This full immersion into a character is seen occasionally, especially in the first episode, but is lacking in the small, everyday moments.
Instead of appearing to be Cohen playing Thaabeth, a man grappling with this new identity, he’s either Cohen or Thaabeth, two completely different roles in the same show.
The plot also occasionally suffers from cliches when it comes to Eli and Nadia’s romance, like a split screen of the two mirroring each other’s motions from hundreds of miles away, undoubtedly thinking about each other all the while. It was necessary to show their love to humanize Eli, but at times it felt forced amidst all the politics.
As a whole, “The Spy” is heavy, but it’s an interesting view of a true story condensed into something binge-watchable.