“Inspired by true events” declares the pre-credit title for Netflix’s The Spy. A quick Google will reveal the extent to which the show’s creators’ deviate from the truth in this depiction of the man considered to have been the greatest spy in history: Mossad agent Eli Cohen. But, incredibly, the broad strokes of the story actually took place.
Born in 1924 Egypt to a devout Jewish and Zionist family, Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen distinguished himself as a young man when, in the face of anti-Semitic attacks in Egypt, he smuggled hundreds of Egyptian Jews out of the country to the newly formed Israel. Finally relocating to the Jewish homeland himself in 1956, where he married and started a family, he applied to Mossad but was rejected. However, the intelligence agency found a use for his unique skills and cultural and ethnic heritage – fluent in Arabic, he was easily able to pass as an Arab – and tasked him with becoming a citizen of Syria, the country at that time posing the greatest threat to the State of Israel.
Posing as “Kamel Amin Thaabet”, a rich businessman of Syrian parentage, Cohen moved to Buenos Aries, where he became well known among the Syrian expat community. A year later, impressed by his patriotism, “Kamel” became a Syrian citizen and moved to Damascus. He quickly infiltrated the Syrian government and went on to became the chief advisor to the Minister of Defence.
The drama is created and written by Gideon Raff (the Israeli writer-producer best known for Prisoners of War, the Israeli TV series that inspired Homeland) and any creative licence he’s taken can be forgiven, chiefly because The Spy is a brilliantly taut and gripping thriller. Told over six episodes, it begins with a rabbi roused from sleep in Damascus, 1965, and taken to see Eli Cohen in prison. Having been arrested and tortured – his fingernails have been pulled out – Cohen seems to be writing his final letter to his wife, Nadia. Back in Israel, we see her listening to the radio, weeping, then turning it off – thus keeping herself (and the audience) in the dark as to Eli’s ultimate fate.
Flashing back to 1961, we glimpse Eli and Nadia in their happy but unremarkable lives in Israel. Raff doesn’t shy away from letting us see the ethnic tensions that exist in Israel – as “brown Jews”, to quote the show, Eli and Nadia are conscious of low-level prejudice against them (in an early scene at a dinner party, Eli is even mistaken for a waiter). This tension, coupled with Eli’s two failed applications to Mossad, all feed into a sense that he has something to prove to his new homeland. And, when the call finally comes, his frustrated patriotism turns him into a dedicated zealot, willing to sacrifice his family life, his identity and even his life in pursuit of his mission.
Playing this brilliantly constructed and complex character is Sacha Baron Cohen, known to all as Ali G and Borat. Baron Cohen opts to play the spy with an understated seriousness and intensity. So perfectly does he inhabit Eli that all memories of his comedic creations are extinguished – even during the period when Eli sports a very Borat moustache.
The two sides of Eli’s life are represented by an impressive array of actors. His Mossad handler, Dan Peleg, is played by Noah Emmerich, who’s best known as Stan Beeman in The Americans, while Hadar Ratzon Rotem (who previously starred in Raff’s Prisoners of War) is first-rate as Eli’s wife. On the other side, Waleed Zuaiter is charismatic but ruthless as Colonel Amin al-Hafiz, Syrian president from 1963 to 1966, while the ever-outstanding Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Syriana, Game of Thrones) embodies the Syrian secret service as coldly reptilian intelligence chief Su’edani.
It’s intricately plotted, but never confusing, as the various elements are moved across the story’s chessboard with precision. The push-and-pull of allegiances and moral conundrums is brilliantly explored: Peleg, falling in platonic love with Eli’s wife, struggles to reconcile his duty to Israel with his obligation to keep Eli as safe as possible. Similarly, Eli makes genuine friends in Syria, which never stops him from committing to his mission, but gives him pause whenever their lives are endangered. Never is this more apparent than when, in one of the series standout sequences, “Kamel” holds a sex party for high-level government officials, so his friend, Colonel al-Hafiz, can seize power in a murderously efficient coup.
Best of all, though, is the way in which the drama weaves seemingly innocuous items into the plot; every action Eli makes has a serious intent, whether it’s his purchasing of tables and chairs to export so as to smuggle out microfilm and documents, or his gift of hundreds of eucalyptus trees – ostensibly so as to give the brave Syrian soldiers shade in their base in the Golan Heights; in reality, these trees enabled Israeli forces to target their firepower in 1967’s Six-Day War, and the Heights were seized in just two hours and remain in Israeli hands to this day.
As one of the architects of Israel’s expansionist war, Eli Cohen’s legacy is, to put it mildly, controversial. Raff does a decent job of being even-handed and, while the Syrian regime is portrayed as oppressive, the Israeli government’s shameful treatment of Cohen is also on display. As in real life, Cohen is at breaking point when he visits Israel for the birth of his third child. He wants to stay but, having been offered the post of Deputy Defence Minister, is pressured by his superiors to return. The result, as we see in the opening scene, is his arrest.
There is a hagiographical aspect to Raff’s version of Cohen’s story; the spy is considered a hero of Israel and Raff deliberately focuses on Cohen’s more noble qualities. While there is decadence on display, it doesn’t figure as prominently as it did in Cohen’s real life. Playing the part of a dissolute millionaire, Cohen is said to have had 17 lovers, women from upper echelons of Syrian society, as well as partaking in the orgies for which he was famed. That this is barely a feature of this fictionalised account could be a point for criticism, but creating any drama based on reality requires one to make creative choices. By focusing in on Cohen’s love for his Nadia – which was expressed in his final letter to her from prison – Raff successfully conveys both the passion and dichotomy of a man who, out of love for his country, spent five years feigning loyalty to another.
The Spy is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.