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The True Story of Eli Cohen, 'The Spy,' on Netflix
September 6, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

The new Netflix series The Spy takes the novel tack of opening with its own spoiler. 

The extended first scene makes it clear that Eli Cohen, the Israeli intelligent agent after whom the show is titled, has been apprehended and faces imminent execution. 

That's the show's spoiler, not ours – and in its historic context, it's not a spoiler at all, since that's exactly what happened to the real-life Eli Cohen in early 1965. 

The Spy, whose six episodes premiere Friday on Netflix, opens with the ending to get it out of the way. Its real focus lies with what he did in the previous four years, following his recruitment by Israel's intelligence agency Mossad. 

His work was invaluable, providing information Israel would use in, among many other situations, the 1967 Six-Day War.

For all that, Cohen has become a real-life national hero in Israel, memorialized across the country. 

He is seen as less of a heroic figure, needless to say, in Syria, the country he infiltrated. But The Spy tells the tale from Cohen's side, so that's the dominant perspective. This is not Our Boys, the controversial HBO series that suggests both sides in the Israel-Arab conflict need to atone. 

Beyond the internal dramas of Middle East politics, though, The Spy goes for something even broader and more universal: the nuts and bolts of espionage. 

The classic TV/movie spy usually has a little James Bond in his or her DNA. The espionage game is portrayed as dangerous and subtly glamorous, with the spy repeatedly calling on physical and mental agility to stay one step ahead of discovery. 

Cohen, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen (top) in a somber role galaxies removed from his well-known Borat, does draw on mental agility. Creator/writers Gideon Raff and Max Perry also spend considerable time on the cat-and-mouse element of his work, which does place him in constant danger. 

But spying here isn't "swinging on the Riviera one day, lying in a Bombay alley next day." 

Espionage here is a methodical grind, starting with establishing and maintaining a new identity in a new place. 

Once he has that foothold, Cohen slowly and almost casually develops relationships, trust, and access. He must gather information slowly and cautiously, never speaking in a way that would ever inspire anyone to ask, "Why did he want to know that?"

That doesn't mean The Spy only shows a guy sitting at a desk scanning paperwork.  There's action here and plenty of tension, as Eli's handler Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich) does his own maneuvering to keep Cohen as safe as possible while remaining plugged in. 

Perhaps the most significant way The Spy separates itself from most spy dramas is by the prominence of Cohen's wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon-Rotem). Cohen is portrayed as deeply in love and brutally torn over a job that takes him away from her and could mean he would never see her again at all.

As The Spy portrays it, his love of Israel ultimately has the stronger pull. His country needs him more than he needs Nadia and so he makes what is, in effect, a soldier's decision. He hears the sound of distant drums, and he must go. 

Sacha Baron Cohen, who could almost have been cloned from the real-life Eli Cohen, plays him well. He's a little guarded, a little analytic and yet, all along, we get a visceral sense of how it would feel to be on this kind of high-wire mission.  

That Eli Cohen didn't live to tell the story himself in his old age creates a sadness that permeates The Spy. Here, as in every war movie, that's the risk.

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If anyone likes this series then they would also really like, The Bureau.
Sep 10, 2019   |  Reply
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