The show opens with a man exiting a propeller plane and heading toward a car (and the camera) in the pouring rain. Dropping a copy of the Le Monde newspaper from under his shoulder, he takes a phone from a briefcase in the car and, with a serious tone, calls the Israeli prime minister. The opening establishes that the story will involve the highest reaches of power and ultimately have the darkest conclusion, which anyone familiar with Eli Cohen’s story will know going into this.
The cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen (as Eli Cohen) and Noah Emmerich, along with many Israeli actors. Emmy Award-winning writer Gideon Raff co-wrote and directed the series.
“The Spy” runs for six episodes of roughly 50 minutes.
Sum up: In this drama, the narrative relays real-life Cohen’s motivation for becoming a spy by focusing on his Egyptian heritage and how that makes him feel in the almost entirely white Israel. Sacha Baron Cohen (no relation to Eli) intentionally brings little humor to this and gives a performance grounded in reality.
Cohen (the character) keeps quiet about his background of successfully smuggling Jews out of Egypt in the 1950s, and various white Israelis treat him with disrespect. In a considered directorial choice, much of the first episode has an ultra-white color palette, with Cohen literally blending into his surroundings, except for his self-proclaimed “brown” skin. Becoming a spy offers him the chance to leave his mundane work at a Tel Aviv department store and have an “important” life.
The stakes keep heightening as Cohen goes through his training. When he decides to go through with the increasingly risky mission, it remains unclear if he does this selfishly for glory or for a sense of duty to country.
Heads up: In a choice that works for the narrative, but perhaps pushes the show toward the realm of hagiography and propaganda, much time goes into proving that Cohen is good in various ways, whether that means that he’s a loving husband or that he’s the hardest-working and most patriotic spy for the job.
Along with that lack of nuance, the script heavily implies that Cohen’s wife got pregnant the same day Cohen learned he’ll become a spy. While the set design is meticulous and the acting superb enough to credibly convince a viewer to get lost in this world, the script keeps showing its heavy-handedness over and over.
Close-up: The show has many interesting stylized moments. Early on, the camera does a close-up on Cohen’s hands without fingernails (a scene that takes place chronologically near the end of Cohen’s story, but is one of the first scenes of the first episode). In this moment, Cohen sits in jail as a prisoner. This disgusting image of Cohen’s nail-less hands then transitions to Cohen writing with a pen on paper the words “My dear wife Nadia” ― which the show stylizes with handwritten text appearing on the screen next to Cohen. This combination of gore with sweet quirkiness makes for a complex moment, especially when, later in the episode, the same handwritten effect is used to illustrate less fraught love letters between Eli and his wife.
History: The New York Times had an article in 2018 about a secret Israeli operation to recover Cohen’s wristwatch. HISTORICAL SPOILER ― the operation involved a 14-year search to find the body of Cohen, as the Syrian government hid the corpse after his execution for espionage. To be clear, the first episode of “The Spy” makes it pretty clear within the first few scenes of the show that Syria captures and executes Cohen, so knowing Cohen’s end shouldn’t dissuade you from watching the series.
Comp: “The Spy” has similarities to the 2018 AMC miniseries “The Little Drummer Girl” in that both follow regular people becoming Mossad spies for Israel. “The Little Drummer Girl,” set in the 1970s, succeeds in giving a more nuanced portrayal of the Palestinian motivations for war against Israel, while “The Spy” presents a more one-sided viewpoint.
The Characters and Money: Much of the show focuses on the Cohen family’s relationship to wealth before he becomes a spy. Early on, Eli buys his wife a dress at a steep discount from the store where he works, then justifies the purchase by telling her he didn’t spend that much. While Eli bristles at his treatment by white Israelis during a party, his wife suggests the anger comes from the white Israeli hosts having more money. Eli says “it’s not that,” it’s because he thinks they see him as an “Arab.” But still, the suggestion establishes the marital partners’ separation from the riches of those around them. And when Eli tells his wife he has a new job with the Israeli government (while not disclosing it’s espionage work), his wife asks if the job is about lack of money and whether she should work more. “I will not have my wife work two jobs,” Eli responds. Although the show may portray Eli to have god-like espionage skills, he remains a relatable human bound to the ground with money problems just like viewers.
Bonus: Cohen recently earned an Emmy nomination for directing his 2018 show “Who Is America?” In that show, Cohen played a fictional, comedic character named Erran Morad, a potential former member of Mossad and self-proclaimed anti-terrorism expert. Cohen as Morad interviews former Vice President Dick Cheney and gets Cheney to autograph his waterboarding kit.
“The Spy” trailer:
Read on for more recommendations and news from the week. And if you want to stay up to date with what to watch on a weekly basis, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.
What Else Is New This Week On Netflix
“Elite” (Netflix Original) ― This Spanish “Gossip Girl,” of sorts, follows the lives of students at a super-exclusive school in Spain. Most of the students are extremely wealthy, but a few working-class students also attend.
A Couple Of Netflix News Stories From This Week
1. Netflix announced that “Grace & Frankie” would return for a seventh and final season, which will make the show the longest-running Netflix Original in terms of episode count. By the end, “Grace & Frankie” will have 94 episodes, with the last season contributing 16 to that total.
2. The “Between Two Ferns” trailer debuted, and I will definitely be watching this movie when it joins Netflix on Sept. 20. For now, you can watch the trailer here:
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