Sacha Baron Cohen transitions from comedy to drama seamlessly without any traces of him either in Eli or Kamel; this anchors the entire series. Israeli actress Hadar Ratzon Rotem plays Nadia, Cohen’s forbearing wife and does justice to a character that could have easily been sidestepped. Much like Eli, poetically enough, in the last episode towards the end, as Eli sits in the prison, we see a moth drawn to light eventually causing his own death.
Netflix’s new limited series, Sacha Baron Cohen starrer The Spy is based on the book L’espion qui venait d’Israël, English for The Spy Who Came From Israel written by Israeli journalists and authors Yeshayahu Ben Porat and Uri Dan.
It is 1965 and Syria’s capital, Damascus is on high alert. A rabbi is brought to a prison where Eli Cohen, the legendary Mossad agent is captured. “My poor boy you do not remember your name?” asks the rabbi as an unclear Eli pauses before signing his name. This cold open in the pilot sets both the tone and expectation from The Spy.
Eli’s story seems surreal enough to be unbelievable if it wasn’t true. Egyptian born Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen better known as Eli Cohen went on to become one of the greatest spies of the 20th century. His peculiar profile of an Arabic speaking Jew caught the eye of Mossad; his proficiency in Arabic, English, and French came in handy. He was hired and trained exhaustively, following which he assumed his new identity, Kamel Amin Thabet.
Unlike most spies that blend in, Kamel, a Syrian origin Argentinian businessman was charming, flamboyant, wealthy, and witty. Using his new identity, he forged friendships with the Syrian elite, especially General Amin Al-Hafiz (Waleed Zuaiter) and moved to Damascus in 1962. Hafiz’s head of security detail, Suidani (Alexander Siddig), however, never trusted him. His guise drew people to him aiding him to quickly become an insider with his newly befriended army folk. His extravagant parties were popular within the army circles where classified information was just as free and ample as the liquor. As a wealthy patriot, he blended in so well that he toured the Golan Heights, a strategically important plateau for the Syrian army.
One of his parties worked as a distraction for the military officials as his old friend, Amin Al-Hafiz overthrew the government to establish a Ba’ath foothold. Hafiz was appointed the new president and favoured Eli, and their mutual affinity got Eli access to Syria’s future projects. Hafiz considered him for the position of the Minister of Defence. He was caught in the act of transmitting intel back to Mossad. Once he was found guilty of treason, he was executed publicly on May 18, 1965.
Eli’s story draws parallels to that of Icarus. His contribution to Mossad was unparalleled, but just like Icarus he flew too close to the sun eventually causing his own death. He took risks and ignored his Mossad handler’s warnings. His persona of a charming, flamboyant businessman caught the eye of Ahmed Suidani, who didn’t trust him from the very beginning.
It doesn’t do justice to call The Spy an espionage thriller since it dwells on Eli and Nadia romance, Eli’s identity crises, and his handler’s struggle to contain his guilt which propels him to assist Nadia and regularly check on her well being. It is a compelling watch because it tells the story of Eli Cohen fondly known as ‘Our Man In Damascus’ who to this day is considered a national hero.