Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career out of going undercover.
As Ali G, Borat, Bruno, and others, he has used the tools of comedy—improvisation, scatology, outlandishness—to extract, at his best, the worst bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, hubris, cluelessness, and boilerplate idiocy from politicians and passersby. In Netflix’s The Spy, Baron Cohen goes undercover again, this time within the more structured confines of a scripted period drama. Playing Eli Cohen, a real Israeli spy who infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian government in the 1960s, Baron Cohen is taking on the part not just of a super agent, but more demandingly, of a serious dramatic actor, with muted results.
As The Spy begins, Eli Cohen is a happily married Israeli Everyman. An Egyptian Jew forced to expatriate to Tel Aviv, he writes cutesy love notes to his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), even as he bridles at his perceived secondary status as a Sephardic Jew, and hungers to do more for his country. Approached by the Mossad, which is desperate to embed an agent in Syria, Eli turns out to be wunderkind at spycraft, a Bond-ian operative with instincts and a memorable call number to boot: Agent 88. Filmed in color so leached-out it approaches black and white, The Spy’s first two episodes contain the kind of training and spy-jinks one expects from a low-key John Le Carré adaptation, as the preternaturally talented Eli learns tradecraft from a gruff handler (Noah Emmerich, with one of the more try-hard Israeli accents in a laboriously accented series). Eli also makes high-risk mistakes in Buenos Aires, where he begins to establish his cover as a rich and debonair import-exporter who longs to return to a Syrian homeland he has never seen.
Created by Gideon Raff, also the creator of Hatufim, which was adapted (with major alterations) into Homeland, The Spy is not exactly the leisurely Le Carré exercise that it initially presents as. This will not surprise people familiar with Cohen’s story, which is much much more widely known in Israel than in America. For those unfamiliar with that history, even though the series begins in media res with Cohen in captivity, it will be something of a spoiler to say—by which I mean, please do not read the rest of this paragraph if you hate spoilers—that The Spy is itself undercover, posing as an espionage caper when it is actually a cross-cultural installment in the burgeoning genre of excruciating, edifying TV projects, like Chernobyl, How They See Us, and HBO’s own Israeli drama Our Boys, about grim, difficult historical events.
Though The Spy is obsessively fixated on one man—there’s probably not one scene that he is not in or is not expressly about him—the psychological portrait of Cohen is oddly thin. For a show that is both thoughtful and appropriately cynical about Israeli intelligence services—the Mossad’s concern for the nation turns even its most effective and devoted citizens into expendable cogs—it is surprisingly gentle to Cohen, a gentleness that becomes indistinguishable from shallowness, a spoiled sort of kindness.
A double agent is a hero and a liar, a patriot and a sneak. That’s the job description. To perpetuate the kind of double life Eli Cohen has in the series, lying not only to enemies that have become his friends, but to the friends and family who have become strangers, takes a creepy kind of fortitude. What drives a man to leave the wife he adores and his brand-new child to do something so isolating and dangerous he will see them only every few years, and expect them to await him, devoted all the while? The answer is patriotism—and also the darker, self-important urges that full-body patriotism fulfills. It’s love of country and the superself that country needs, love of the fantastical opportunity to be a player on the world stage, to discard a mild, happy life, to become the very whirring center of things.
All of this is right there in the story of The Spy, and yet this dark edge is not quite present in Baron Cohen’s performance. There is a kind of simple nobility to Baron Cohen’s take on Cohen that can border on the simpleminded. It doesn’t besmirch a man to suggest he might have some darkness; it makes him human. In real life, for example, Eli Cohen apparently took multiple lovers while undercover in Syria, where he arranged sex parties for the political elite: In the show, he is scrupulously faithful until remaining so would blow his cover. The show’s romanticism extends to Nadia, his wife, who is so saintly she might as well be a painting. Despite seeing the husband she believes is some kind of government apparatchik once every year and a half or so, and raising three children alone, she doesn’t even need a couple days to re-acclimate herself to his presence. When he pops up he is greeted with kisses and elaborate meals and marital harmony, a love that seems less real for being so loving.
There’s a sequence later in the series where one of Cohen’s Syrian friends observes that he is extremely magnetic: He has that thing, that quality, where everyone takes to him. There’s another, similar sequence where Cohen’s handler explains that he’s never met anyone like Eli Cohen, anyone who was so singularly eager and devoted to doing the job and to doing it well. In addition to making me wonder why was Eli Cohen like this—one thing the show doesn’t explain at all—watching those scenes I thought, if we weren’t being told these things, we wouldn’t know they were true. At least in this part, Baron Cohen can’t put over multiple, complicated motivations and qualities at once: it-guy charisma, borderline off-putting eagerness and devotion, the narcissism of being the best spy in Israel, and Everyman decency. So he does only the last.