The Spy review Sacha Baron Cohen goes undercover in middling Mossad drama

The star of Borat and Bruno goes straight as an Israeli spy in a plodding period espionage saga that mainly manages to remind viewers of better, smarter shows

Its a long way from Grimsby to Tel Aviv. But Sacha Baron Cohen has the singular distinction of playing spies in both contrasting burgs. In 2016s The Brothers Grimsby, he played alcoholic buffoon and putative Grimbarian Nobby, who, despite being disguised as Liam Gallagher, managed to assist his MI6 officer brother to foil a eugenicist plot to rid the world of the working classes. But only after the pair, ostensibly hilariously, were obliged to hide in an elephants vagina.


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Three years later, Baron Cohen stars in The Spy, Netflixs new six-part series written and directed by Gideon Raff, who was responsible for Prisoners of War, the (superior) Israeli series from which Homeland was adapted.

Baron Cohen plays Israels most famous spy, Eli Cohen, who in the 1960s went deep cover for Mossad in Damascus to obtain Syrian military secrets and thereby thwart attacks on kibbutzim in northern Israel. And, as it turns out, to suggest the planting of eucalyptus trees that would provide the air force with targets as Israeli forces overran the Golan Heights during 1967s six-day war.

Baron Cohen as Kamel Amin Thaabeth, AKA Eli Cohen. Photograph: David Lukacs/NETFLIX

Is Sacha Baron Cohen really the right guy to play an Israeli hero? Certainly, when in an early scene his grows a moustache that recalled his Kazakh bonehead Borat, I wondered. But Cohen has argued that he has what it takes to play Agent 88. He has previous for fooling the worlds greatest minds while in unconvincing disguises. As Ali G, he once successfully importuned Noam Chomsky: How many words does you know, and what is some of them? And last year, while posing as an Israeli army officer, Col Erran Morad, for the satirical series Who is America?, got ex-veep Dick Cheney to sign his waterboarding kit.

In The Spy, Eli Cohen becomes Kamel Amin Thaabeth, an Argentine-based Arab businessman who yearns to return to his ancestral homeland. Once in Syria, he does his job so well that he rises to become deputy defence secretary even as he sends morse messages about military dispositions back to Mossad. The real story, detailed originally in the book The Spy Who Came From Israel by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat, is far-fetched enough, but no less out there than the fact that Kim Philby and David Shayler worked for her majestys secret service.

This adaptation is not helped by risible montages. (There is a sub-GI Jane sequence in which our hero does chin-ups, learns how to spot MiG fighters, does more chin-ups, improves his morse coding, and does more chin-ups.) Nor is clunky freighted dialogue of much benefit.

The main problem, though, is Noah Emmerich as Eli Cohens Mossad trainer Dan Peleg. There isnt anything wrong with Emmerichs performance, but his presence highlights The Spys deficiencies by reminding us of a much better drama, The Americans, in which he played CIA Agent Stan Beeman. The Spy, by contrast, looks conventional, old fashioned, plodding.


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It in an early scene with his wife, Nadia, it becomes clear that Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Arab Jew, feels a second-class citizen in Ashkenazy-led Israel. He complains that he and his wife were only invited to a party to give it some colour. What colour is that? she asks. Brown. Theres a sense that Sephardic resentment makes Cohen too eager to succeed and therefore at risk of blowing his cover. I could have done with more psychically plausible nuance like that. The Spy may be subtler than The Brothers Grimsby, but its not as good as it needs to be.

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