The Spy review: Serious Sacha Baron Cohen saves new Netflix series from being a joke
Director - Gideon Raff
Cast - Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, Alexander Siddig, Waleed Zuaiter
Gideon Raff gives himself at least six credits in each episode of his new Netflix miniseries, The Spy. He doesn’t combine them for the sake of brevity (or humility), but instead, in highly irregular form, doubles down on them, giving himself a proud pat on the back before each episode has begun, and again, after it has ended.
As annoying as it is to see his name again and again and again, this knowledge comes in handy when you’re looking for someone to assign blame upon for the show’s many missteps, but also when you’re looking for someone to praise when it occasionally succeeds. Because by hogging the limelight, creator, executive producer, writer and director Gideon Raff has also painted a target on his back. The Spy, for better or for worse, is a Raff enterprise. It lives and it dies on the back of its creator’s sensibilities.
Watch The Spy trailer here
The six-part miniseries arrives less than two months after his highly problematic Netflix film, The Red Sea Diving Resort. The Spy is an infinitely better experience, but one thing is abundantly clear now: Raff is a much better fit for television than feature films. Long-form storytelling irons out some of his more controversial tendencies, which were there for everyone to see in The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film that had the unique ability to offend different audiences depending on which corner of the world they came from. So while I found its divisive politics rather troubling, others thought it celebrated the White Saviour trope.
And either by complete coincidence or by design, the lead character’s skin colour plays an important role in The Spy, as well. Eli Cohen’s Arab appearance was one of the key reasons he was handpicked by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, to undertake a highly dangerous mission in the 1960s. He would be their man in Damascus, Syria, at a tumultuous time between the nations. He would establish himself as a patriotic Syrian businessman, host lavish parties for statesmen and military officials, and relay whatever he learnt to his handlers back home.
It took me a full episode to accept Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli, which is a shame, because once the initial shock of seeing him, a comic legend, deliver a dramatic performance wears off, he is revealed to be quite excellent in the role. The accent that initially seemed like it belonged to one of his Who is America? characters becomes less distracting as the actor sneaks under Eli’s skin. As broad as some of his choices may be, Sacha Baron Cohen can be disarmingly subtle, as well.
While Eli is shown to be a regular family man who adores his wife, his Syrian secret identity, Kamel, needs to wield an uncommon confidence as he develops relationships with important Syrian figures; he must be charming and sociable, authoritative but never arrogant.
The actor’s performance goes a long way in toning down some of Raff’s more eccentric directorial flourishes, none of which is weirder than his decision, in one dramatic sequence, to intercut between a military coup and an orgy.
The writing is also rather plain. As expensive as The Spy looks and feels (save for one glaring moment where modern cars can be seen on the streets of 60s Damascus), it is decidedly lowbrow in its treatment. It is the sort of show in which fireplaces tend to make themselves available when letters are in need of burning; the sort of show in which, if wives are being missed, a lookalike appears out of thin air to be followed on the streets; in which secret conversations are conducted within earshot of exactly those people who shouldn’t be hearing them.
It sort of makes sense that the show is a smoother ride when it focuses on the character of Eli, and not when it slips into that uncomfortable political zone that Raff routinely finds himself veering into. You see, most of what has been documented about Eli’s life is from an Israeli perspective. To them, he is a national hero; a man who played a key role in his country’s victory in the Six-Day War. And it is with similar reverence that Gideon Raff tells his story.
I’ve always thought of Israelis as a paranoid people. As a child, minding my own business outside the French cultural centre in New Delhi, I was approached by a man in dark glasses and a suit - he looked like a secret agent! He asked me what I was doing, and vaguely dissatisfied with my answer, he noted down my name and address in a pocketbook. As he walked back across the street, I learned that he worked the security at the neighbouring Israeli embassy. I was later told that the Israelis across the street kept a better record of the goings on at the French cultural centre than the French themselves. To be clear, this was in New Delhi, perhaps in the mid-2000s.
Israel of the 1960s was a very different place; it was when the seeds of the nation’s current belligerent attitude were first sown. And Raff, to his credit, offers a sort of explanation for his country’s psychology back them. Because barely two decades before Eli was sent into Syria — his patriotism exploited for the greater good of his nation — the Israelis felt that they had been let down by the world, and made to believe that if they didn’t take care of their own people, no one would.
The Spy isn’t perfect, but at least it has the humanism of Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi and Yoon Jong- bin’s The Spy Gone North — both recent benchmarks for the genre.