Netflix’s The Spy Review: Sacha Baron Cohen puts in a career-best performance
Netflix’s new limited series, The Spy, puts Sacha Baron Cohen into the world of espionage as he delivers one of the best performances of his career in true story that’s not fully developed.
The series is based on the true story of Eli Cohen (Cohen), an Egyptian-born man who is recruited by the Israeli Intelligence Agency, Mossad, to be a spy within the Syrian government. Although Eli isn’t military trained, he’s eager for the opportunity in order to give his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) a better life. So, under his new alias, Kamel Amin Thaabat, Eli must work his way through Syrian socialites and officials while never arousing any suspicion that he’s secretly sending information to the Israeli government.
Most people know Cohen for his wild, comedic characters, like Borat or Ali G, but it’s rare to actually see Cohen in a more dramatic setting and, frankly, it needs to happen more often. As Eli, Cohen shows a whole new side to himself as he captures the struggles that Eli goes through as he tries to balance his spy and home life perfectly. Eli is constantly referred by his mentor, Dan (Noah Emmerich), as determined, eager, and intelligent and that’s exactly what Cohen brings to each scene. He never plays Eli like the “perfect spy” and gives him a more genuinely human feel with how he portrays the moral and social dilemmas that Eli faces. He makes mistakes, doesn’t always approve of his own decisions, and has emotional dilemmas as he grows closer to the people he’s lying to – but he still always finds to create short-term solutions. Like Dan says, he has good instincts and Cohen brings this out every step of the way. Not to mention, the chemistry that he and Rotem have as husband and wife had me from the start and they really hit viewers where it hurts. Even the end had me reeling because of how Cohen makes viewers really care for Eli – even if his decisions aren’t exactly the most likable.
Frankly, Eli’s story is actually quite interesting and the suspense and tension that builds as he creates relationships with high-powered Syrian officials is palpable. There’s plenty of tense moments created that will leave viewers white-knuckled and there’s a scene with Eli being pushed to shoot people by Syrian soldiers that actually had me on the edge of my seat. The rise of Eli’s power in Syrian social and political circles is great to watch and is constantly elevated through the series’ great dialogue and Cohen’s stellar performance. There’s a great build up of escalating instances that leads to Eli’s demise – which I actually thought was a great moment of dramatic irony. Eli’s story never feels overly cinematic and the decisions and issues he faces genuinely come off realistic – especially Eli’s fatal end. Although Eli’s capture is inevitable, as the show opens with it, there’re still some surprising elements with how people react. Regardless of them being lied to and tricked by Eli, they still feel something for him, and it shows how deep of personal impact he’s made.
However, the series has some major storytelling issues as it has tons of time jumps that make Eli’s story a little tough to follow. There’re times where I felt as if I was missing pieces to Eli’s story and characters would be confusingly introduced or taken away because of how much the show jumps forward at one time. Frankly, this kind of story needed to be told in more than just six episodes because certain details and interactions are just glossed over simply because the series suddenly jumps months, or even years ahead. There’s also not much of a through-line to follow, so sometimes I found myself wondering where things were going and wondering what Eli was actually doing and it made me disconnected from what was happening.
There’re also some style choices that are made that can be distracting because of how they are subtly trying to evoke something about Eli – but they end up being too ambiguous. As the series cuts back and forth between Eli as a spy and his family at home, the shots with Eli being a spy are full of color, but when he is home, or it is shown, the color completely drains and almost turns black and white at times. Personally, I think that this is meant to symbolize the two lives that Eli is leading, however, it’s hard to say. It’s possible that this was the intention, but it’s so ambiguous that it’s tough to say and it such a mystery and in viewer’s faces that it’s almost distracting. However, I absolutely love how text is displayed throughout scenes as it’s more viewer-friendly and makes viewers more engaged in sequences where Eli is reading a letter or communicating in Morse code.
The Spy depicts its intriguing true story in a thrilling fashion and, despite some storytelling flaws, features Cohen giving a career-best performance. It brings the kind of slow-burn thrills that make for a perfect quick binge that’s too hard to pass up. Frankly, if the The Spy showcases anything, it’s that Cohen needs to return to drama as quickly as possible.