Netflix's 'The Spy' pushes 'Borat' star Sacha Baron Cohen to flex his dramatic skills

It’s a good start for a move into drama, but if the man formerly known as Ali G was looking for a genuine breakout piece, he’ll have to keep looking.
Image: The Spy
Sacha Baron Cohen plays real-life undercover operative Eli Cohen in Netflix's "The Spy."Axel Decis / Netflix
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By Ani Bundel

Some types of stories have always lent themselves well to television. From the earliest years of the medium, crime procedurals and spy thrillers have been part of the small screen entertainment landscape, from “Dragnet” to “Spycatcher.” Streaming services aren’t above such stories either. Netflix’s newest release “The Spy,” falling into the latter category, is a mostly satisfying meat-and-potatoes thriller, with one twist: It features comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as the titular spy.

The British-born Baron Cohen seems an unlikely star for such a vehicle. He came to prominence in the late 1990s for a character known as “Ali G,” a boorish, uneducated, working-class stereotype who conducted numerous interviews with various public figures. Not all of said public figures were fast enough to pick up on the joke, resulting in several humiliating soundbites.

But Baron Cohen achieved international fame with his movie “Borat,” which was essentially the same joke, just using a different albeit similarly uneducated stereotype, this one hailing from Kazakhstan. Baron Cohen has in the past attempted to break away from this sort of comedy, appearing in the movie musicals “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Les Misérables.” But in the end, he’s always returned to his comfort zone, most recently in Showtime’s “Who Is America?”

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The characters of Borat and Ali G may be ridiculous, but the joke only works if he never breaks the façade to fool his mark into committing a faux pas. If one then looks at Baron Cohen’s entire career as a version of going undercover in the name of comedy, the choice to pick the story of a man who must spend his days undercover as his first high-profile, serious role starts to make a lot of sense.

In “The Spy,” Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen, a real-life Israeli spy who operated undercover through the first half of the 1960s in Syria, and whose intelligence was an instrumental part of Israel’s dominance in the 1967 Six Day War. The film starts with Cohen as an unassuming, slightly dorky accountant who dreams of joining Mossad. After his recruitment by Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich), the former numbercruncher is thrown feet first into Syria to see if he can swim with the sharks. Operating as Kamel Amin Thaabet, a wealthy businessman in Damascus, Cohen soon finds himself throwing parties and lavishing loans on various Syrian defense officials, who in return openly babble about their work problems.

The series, created by Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff, never stops to dwell on the parallels between Baron Cohen’s career and his character’s. But the comparisons become obvious as the show goes on, especially once the character shakes off his initial nervousness and realizes that his intended marks mostly buy his story without question. Baron Cohen as Cohen as Thaabet is a masterclass in playing someone who is in turn playing someone else, but the real magic is in how un-showy Baron Cohen’s acting is. It could be tempting to go over the top, but Baron Cohen never lets the audience forget that someone seeing through Thaabet could mean losing his head.

Baron Cohen as Cohen as Thaabet is a masterclass in playing someone who is in turn playing someone else, but the real magic is in how un-showy Baron Cohen’s acting is.

But even though Baron Cohen turns in a splendid performance alongside some fantastic actors, including Hadar Ratzon Rotem as Cohen’s often-lied to wife Nadia, Waleed Zuaiter playing real Syrian politician Amin Al-Hafez, and Alexander Siddig as the immediately suspicious Syrian Col. Ahmed Su'edani, there’s something a little flat about the whole affair.

Here in the U.S., Eli Cohen’s name will probably only be recognized by people over a certain age. But in Israel, he is considered a national hero and one of the most successful spies of the 20th century. One would imagine that someone who lived though playing such a dangerous game would, therefore, give Baron Cohen a character who must struggle with layers upon layers of deception, especially when he finds himself lying to loved ones and living double and triple lives with little reward.

Some of this tension creeps in around the edges in the series’ final two episodes, especially once Su'edani rises in the ranks of the Defense Ministry and Cohen’s cover begins to unravel. But other than a few hints here and there of the emotional toll the work takes on not getting to see his family, Baron Cohen’s spy seems almost superhuman, unfazed by his work and utterly unquestioning of what his superiors demand of him.

Perhaps this is due to the political stakes of the story. It’s not surprising that both Raff and Baron Cohen aren’t exactly keen to push a narrative that appears to be questioning Israel’s policies. Even if they were so inclined, to do so would drag up an entire host of thorny, knotty issues that could easily overshadow the series.

Without such nuance, however, “The Spy” and Baron Cohen find themselves serving up something far more old-fashioned. It’s a monochromatic, “ends justify the means” parable, devoid of the moral and political complexity viewers have come to expect from the genre. It certainly won’t be compared to some of the other prestige spy dramas of this decade, like “Homeland” and “The Americans.” And Baron Cohen’s ability to stretch himself theatrically suffers somewhat as a result. It’s a good start for a move into drama, but if the man formerly known as Borat was looking for a genuine breakout piece, he’ll have to keep looking.