Sacha Baron Cohen has shed his offensive swimwear and gotcha moments to accomplish a fascinating transition from satirical comedy to historic drama, in the new Netflix mini-series ‘The Spy’.
The six-part series directed by Gideon Raff is based on the real-life tale of Eli Cohen, who was an office-worker-turned-Israeli-spy in the 1960s.
Eli Cohen's undercover espionage operation in Syria led him to spy on government officials and Syrian elites to provide intel to Israeli forces, and resulted in his eventual demise.
Baron Cohen, who coincidentally shares the same surname as Eli, provides a captivating performance as he sheds his funny-guy image like a second skin.
The series wrestles with Eli Cohen’s identity crisis as he is recruited as an Israeli spy in the years leading up to the eventual conflict between Israel and Syria.
Although his endeavour is largely successful, the sheepish, aloof Eli Cohen compromises his own identity as he assumes the identity of his overconfident, brash alter-ego, Kamel Amin Thaabet.
We watch Cohen grow isolated and disorientated in Syria, while his wife and two children remain in Israel, unaware of the torture he is enduring.
The immaculately produced and shot mini-series begins with a disoriented Cohen, bloodied and captured in a cage.
Cohen struggles to answer a Syrian soldier’s basic question: 'What is your name?'.
The scene then flashbacks, showing Cohen’s humble yet comfortable life with his wife, Nadia, played by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem.
A sepia wash falls over each frame, ageing the episode to fit the 60s aesthetic.
Cohen’s relationship with his wife takes centre stage as we get a glimpse at their sweet gestures towards each other, and their bonding over life's simple essentials - bread and butter - at the kitchen table.
Cohen’s soft and gentle personality becomes evermore apparent.
Although ‘The Spy’ provides a close insight into the inner workings of spy intelligence, its heavy use of cliché spy-preparation considerably cheapens it.
Cohen is seen packing explosives in soap boxes, hiding cyanide pills in the lid of prescription bottles, and hiding damning truths from his loved ones, which quickly become the new normal for the family-man recruit.
Cohen is largely used as a pawn by the Israeli spy agency, and is shocked when he is told to lie to his wife by his handler and mentor, Dan Peleg.
Unlike the adaption of Cohen’s story, Peleg, played by Noah Emmerich, is a fictitious character. He's most likely a fusion of a number of personalities who corresponded with and trained Cohen in his infancy at the agency.
The story leads Cohen to Syria under his new alias, Kamel, where he faces a raid by border officials.
Parallels can easily be drawn between the lives of Baron Cohen and his character, which perhaps resonated with the comic.
Baron Cohen’s career has produced multiple larger-than-life characters, from Kazakhstani Borat to mock-interviewer from London's west-side Ali G and raunchy Austrian model Brüno.
The actor's dedication to his comedy, saw him promote his various projects in character.
Similarly, Eli Cohen entirely assumes the persona of Kamel during his four-year-long operation.
In an instant Cohen transforms from a sheepish family man, to an expert con-man.
Cohen, who is insecure and socially reserved during life in Israel, becomes a bold master of deception - a jarring experience for the audience.
The only crack in Cohen’s persona appears when he walks into the bathroom of the border inspection facility, collapses on the floor, and vomits from nerves before returning to his interrogation.
Cohen successfully enters Syria and takes residence in an unassuming apartment.
Over the next five episodes, Cohen manages to weave his way into the high echelons of Syrian society, rubbing shoulders with military elites, and eventually accepts an offer to become the Syrian Defence Minister.
Episodes three and four see Cohen’s life play out as a tragic love story.
Back home in Israel, Cohen’s wife, Nadia, is living a bleak existence awaiting the return of her husband.
Nadia and Eli frequently dreamed and pondered what life would be like if they were to expand their family.
Their love and unwavering adoration for each other is evident in the small notes they leave for each other.
Nadia, who believes her husband is travelling abroad to buy military equipment for the army, learns she is pregnant with her and Cohen’s first child.
She gives birth to their child before Cohen returns, much to his surprise.
After a brief intermission back home, Cohen returns to Syria, and Nadia becomes pregnant a second time.
We are left devastated for Nadia and her fragmented family.
Hadar Ratzon-Rotem’s performance as Nadia is beautiful and equally heartbreaking.
Without Cohen by her side, Nadia is left feeling disheartened by motherhood, while Cohen’s isolation in Syria sees him following strangers in the street that he believes are Nadia.
Cohen’s startling realisation of his own disorientation is unnerving, as we watch him fall into despair and become his character, Kamel.
Back in Israel, although Nadia’s storyline is an intrinsic component of the story, the writers push an unnecessary storyline between her and Dan Paleg while she awaits he husband's return.
Paleg becomes infatuated with Nadia, and obsessively delivers her groceries and baby goods out of guilt for taking away her husband.
Although focusing on these background characters provided ample breathing room, time spent speculating the possibility of a non-existent affair between Nadia and Dan could have been more effectively spent expanding on Cohen’s actions in Syria, which led him to a highly influential position of power.
In the final two episodes, Cohen’s sanity and his fictitious cover unravel.
Cohen returns home once more, for what will be his final time.
He struggles to connect with his children, who he has had little to do with.
Nadia is shocked by Eli’s discomposure and newfound aggression, and his uncharacteristic outbursts about trivialities confuse her.
Nadia tells Eli he has changed. Eli has psychologically transformed into Kamel, the overconfident Syrian socialite, and it is truly a heartbreaking realisation to acknowledge there is little of Eli left.
Eli is faced with the prospect of returning to Syria - this time, not only as con-man Kamel, but as the Syrian Defence Minister.
It is heartbreaking to watch Cohen realise this will be his final mission, and he bids goodbye to his family and to those who have helped him along the way.
His personal connections in Syria begin to deteriorate and he becomes even more isolated, resorting to using a morse code device to interact with the operator in Israel for simple, friendly conversation.
Ultimately, his reliance on morse code is his undoing, and he is exposed by the Syrian military, incarcerated, tortured, and sentenced to death by hanging.
While we may wish for a happy ending, Cohen’s death is a startling reminder that the story is based on fact, not fiction.
The mini-series is confronting, leaving the viewer pondering for days exactly how Cohen’s story became as devastating.
‘The Spy’ is a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by Eli Cohen for his country.
Baron Cohen’s performance is immersive and captivating, and a bold announcement of his transformation to dramatic actor, easily separating this performance from one where he wrestled with another man naked in the middle of a wedding reception.
His supporting talent, notably Ratzon-Rotem, provides the light and shade needed to balance out Cohen’s louder-than-life personality when undercover in Syria.
Overall, the series was an entertaining watch, and a must-see for fans of Baron Cohen.
‘The Spy’ is available to stream now on Netflix.