The last time Sacha Baron Cohen played an Israeli government operative, he was duping gullible politicians and conservative activists as former Mossad agent Erran Morrad on Who Is America?, the Showtime documentary/comedy hybrid series. So it's a little jarring to see Baron Cohen playing things completely straight as real-life Mossad agent Eli Cohen (no relation) in the staid, simplistic Netflix drama The Spy. Eli Cohen is a national hero in Israel, and The Spy is a pretty one-dimensional tribute, portraying him as a mostly uncomplicated patriot who sacrificed everything for his country. To believe the show, his only flaw was being too eagerly devoted to service.
The first episode (of six) opens with Eli captured and broken, writing a final letter before his execution in Syria in 1965. So even for viewers who aren't familiar with the true story, the show's ending is clear from the start. The Spy then flashes back to six years earlier, as Eli, an Egyptian-born Jew, is working as an insurance clerk in Tel Aviv, frustrated at the lack of response from his Mossad applications. But with the increased urgency of placing an agent in Syria, the espionage agency offers Eli a chance, given his unique background. They create a cover identity for him as Syrian businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet and send him to Buenos Aires, where he ingratiates himself with the Syrian expatriate community as a way to eventually infiltrate the country's elite.
For the most part, the story proceeds in a straightforward, linear fashion, from Eli's recruitment through his eventual detection and capture, and while the events are true, they're presented via a series of musty spy-movie cliches, from Eli skulking around offices to take clandestine photos of classified documents, to his neglected wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon-Rotem) suffering at home, raising children alone while her husband is off on secret missions. Eli accumulates multiple children with Nadia over the course of the series without creator Gideon Raff (who wrote or co-wrote and directed every episode) showing his visits home, and the relationship between Eli and Nadia, which is meant to form the show's emotional core, feels perfunctory and hollow.
Raff created the Israeli series Prisoners of War and was an executive producer on its American adaptation, Homeland. However, there's little of the suspenseful twists and turns or compelling characters of Homeland in The Spy. Raff may be constrained to some degree by facts, but he fails to bring those to life, or to generate enough intrigue to carry the show from episode to episode. The Spy is a perfect example of the streaming-service tendency to stretch a feature film's worth of material into a multi-episode series, and a lot of the show is just marking time, as Eli meets various seemingly interchangeable Syrian power players who provide him with the credentials necessary to rise in political and social circles.
In his first major dramatic role, Baron Cohen acquits himself effectively, although his performance is so low-key (perhaps in deliberate contrast to his broad comedic characters) that Eli sometimes fades into the background of his own story. Most of Baron Cohen's comedy has hinged on his ability to fully immerse himself in his different personas, so it's not surprising that he can do the same in a more serious role. But Eli just isn't a very interesting character, and the show downplays any potential internal conflicts, whether about Israeli policy or about personal relationships. Eli remains dedicated to Nadia despite being presented with numerous temptations (which may even be necessary to maintain his cover at times), and he never questions his mission.
Eli Cohen's story was previously dramatized in the 1987 HBO movie The Impossible Spy, starring John Shea, and the six-part Netflix series may be the modern equivalent of a throwaway TV movie of the week. The Spy is often just as cheesy as an '80s TV production, with its Rocky-style montage (complete with flipping calendar pages) of Eli going through his spy training, and its onscreen text of the heartfelt letters between Eli and Nadia. But it also takes three episodes just to get to Syria, drawing out a story that has no business lasting for six nearly hour-long episodes.
Or, if Raff wanted to justify the running time, he should have opened up the story a little, and given the supporting characters meaningful subplots. The Americans' Noah Emmerich gets second billing as Eli's Mossad handler Dan Peleg, and Emmerich certainly has plenty of experience playing an intense, sometimes overly dedicated, government agent. But Dan is largely ineffectual, spending the majority of the series sitting in an office and worrying, without doing much about it. The show hints at a potential affair between Dan and Nadia, only to quickly back-pedal. Whether it's because of Eli's exalted status in Israeli history or just artistic timidity, Raff holds back on making any bold moves with the characterization or storytelling, and the actors follow suit.
The visual style is also bland and subdued, although at least part of that is thematic, as Raff shoots most of the scenes in Israel with a washed-out gray color palette to contrast to the vibrant colors of Eli's life in Syria, where he has to keep up the fiction of being a rich, powerful playboy (he's eventually even offered the post of Syria's Deputy Minister of Defense). The most effective stylistic touches are cross-cutting and split screens that juxtapose Eli in Syria with Nadia or Eli's brother in Israel, emphasizing both their connections (in eating the same meal, or cheering for the same national soccer team) and their vast distance. Those grace notes are small and infrequent, though, and The Spy mostly plods through its familiar espionage narrative, a dull illustration of complex history.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, Waleed Zuaiter and Alexander Siddig, all six episodes of The Spy debut Friday on Netflix.