tv review

The Spy Feels Like a Memorial Plaque Turned Into a Miniseries

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Mossad agent Eli Cohen with unblinking straightness in Netflix’s The Spy. Photo: David Lukacs

There are two questions at play regarding The Spy, Netflix’s new six-part miniseries about the life of Israeli spy Eli Cohen. The first is the usual: Is it well made? That is, does it scan, is it compelling, is it built effectively? The answer is yes; it’s a clean, functional, often gripping story about a real man, and it’s been massaged fairly smoothly into a six-part arc. But the second question is, why does The Spy exist? And that is a harder nut to crack.

The real story behind The Spy is a dramatic, exciting, tragic one, and although it’s odd to dodge spoilers for a miniseries based on real events that happened 54 years ago, it seems likely that at least some of The Spy’s audience will not know about Mossad agent Eli Cohen, a resourceful Israeli spy trained for extensive undercover missions in Syria. He’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen with absolute unblinking straightness — not overly candid, or warm, or forthright, or personable. He’s not unusually withdrawn or secretive, either; Cohen’s Eli is a man who’s happy to divulge his inner demons when he does occasionally find a safe listening ear. He’s smooth when he needs to be, charming and flirtatious and confident when he’s in the process of winning over some crucial Syrian contact.

The Eli portrayed in The Spy is an Israeli patriot seemingly drawn from a propaganda booklet: stern, solemn, loves his wife, loves his country, feels the personal cost of his actions, but happy to subsume his individual pain for the good of Israel. He is internally tortured by the lies he must uphold and the secrets he has to keep but, honestly, not that much. A few times he gets very upset. Once, he hurls things at the wall. (Eventually, he’s tortured in other, more gruesomely direct ways.) In all, he is a model warrior, and The Spy has no interest in revealing any element of his inner life that might make him seem more human.

Cohen’s handler is played by Noah Emmerich, who gets to dust off his serious-spy-handler face from The Americans, to which he adds a mustache and an Israeli accent. There are several other minor players, the most important of whom are Eli’s wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem); another handler, named Maya (Yael Eitan); and one of Eli’s Syrian contacts, Ma’azi (Nassim Si Ahmed). Of them, the only characters who feel really alive are the ones who exhibit some internal conflict about Eli’s mission and occasionally strain against the series’ by-the-book spy-drama arc. Emmerich’s Dan Peleg has a few moments of doubt, a larger worry about the wisdom of spies who are too eager to do their jobs. Ma’azi has one scene in a bathhouse that briefly lifts him into being a distinct person. But none of the women become more three-dimensional than “concerned female handler” or “dedicated, frustrated wife.” Most of the Syrian characters are one-note villains. Nadia, Eli’s wife, has a significant role in the series and is played capably by Hadar Ratzon Rotem, but her entire identity, and motivation, is “Eli’s wife,” and it’s clear The Spy only puts so much emphasis on Nadia as a way of making Eli seem more complex.

This flatness extends to all of The Spy’s supporting cast — even Emmerich, who does his best but has nothing like the sharp, grumpy distinction of Michael Shannon’s Kurtz, a similarly conflicted Israeli spy handler in last year’s The Little Drummer Girl — and to some extent Eli Cohen, whose patriotism is unending and colorless. (It’s often literally colorless, as particular scenes are desaturated to the point of appearing in black and white.) The Spy’s depiction of Eli’s story is uninflected, absolutely direct. Here is a man, he was a brave and effective spy, and rather than get out when he should’ve, he stayed in for the sake of his country, and, well …

I will skip over the details of what happens at the end of The Spy to retain the grim sense of oncoming doom for viewers who do not know the specifics of Eli Cohen’s legacy. But the idea that the end of this story is a surprise, that The Spy builds up to the finale with a slow, determined march toward destiny that many in its audience will not know in advance, gets to the core question of why The Spy exists. It seems to exist in order to tell people about Eli Cohen, to illustrate the story for audiences who may never have heard it. It is, almost without reservation, a celebration of Cohen’s sacrifices and his dedication. It’s as if a commemorative plaque from a particularly gruesome historical location was made it into a six-part miniseries.

Considering what the last sentence of this particular commemorative plaque would be, depicting it with the silent, plodding, step-by-step directness that The Spy turns to in its final sequences feels like the martyring and exploitation reminiscent of some true-crime podcasts. That sense gets even stronger at the very end, when the series cuts out and then turns to the inevitable and yet surely unnecessary photographs of the real Eli Cohen. As Emily Yoshida has already pointed out, end-credits “real life” slideshows are almost always a way for film and TV to do some glib showing of their work. In this case, the glibness comes with an extra dose of righteousness and stomach-churning crudeness. It reminded me of the time my eighth-grade teacher had the class read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and when our faces slowly looked up in horror as we got to the end of the brutal short story, he clapped his hands in glee and said, “Now let’s watch the movie!”

I did not know about the story of Eli Cohen before watching The Spy, and so for that, I’m glad I did see it. I know more about history than I did before. I only wish The Spy had done a little more to shade in some subtle colors within its stark, blunt outline.

The Spy Is a Memorial Plaque Turned Into a Miniseries