Thursday, September 5, 2019

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'The Spy'

Netflix will premiere its new original limited series The Spy on Friday, September 6. The drama stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Alexander Siddig, Waleed Zuaiter, Nassim Lyes, Yael Eitan and Moni Moshonov.

Read on for my thoughts on the period drama after screening its entire six-episode season.


Sacha Baron Cohen is best known for playing broad, in-your-face characters. It's political satire that has drawn a fair amount of criticism and scandals over the years. It was a pattern he was employing just a year ago when he debuted a secret Showtime project featuring new interviews with politicians doing and saying outrageous things to prove a point about how hypocritical and disturbing it all can be. That's what he is known for doing. He has made a successful career out of that too. It has earned him a ton of praise and attention as well. He did share an Academy Award nomination for the Borat film screenplay after all. Meanwhile, he is currently up for an Emmy for the aforementioned Showtime sketch series. But now, it's fascinating to see him delve into completely new territory. No, it's not miraculous to see him in a purely dramatic role. He has played things fairly straight in several projects in the past. Netflix's new limited series The Spy may feature him at the driest in his career so far. It's a new performance shading that proves that he absolutely is a stellar actor. He couldn't do what he is famous for if he wasn't more than capable at acting. He had to commit to the premises of those ridiculous sketches no matter what. And now, he gets to play a leading man in a spy thriller. However, the title of the new series is very generic which underscores mostly everything about it. It's a less successful version of The Americans or Homeland, which ironically features The Americans co-star Noah Emmerich in a supporting role. There isn't anything particularly revolutionary on display in this series. It comes from Gideon Raff who has worked on Homeland and the original Israeli series that inspired it, Prisoners of War. Raff directed all six episodes and either wrote or co-wrote them all too. This is a formula that he knows how to execute perfectly. It is a fairly captivating story. It's just mostly told in a matter-of-fact way instead of truly digging deep into the nuances of any particular situation.

Cohen plays Egyptian-born, Israeli immigrant Eli Cohen who is recruited by the government agency Mossad to become a highly-ranked spy within Syria during the early 1960s. It's a completely factual story as well. Eli Cohen was a real man who served his country during this time in this specific way. Any potential viewer can easily look up the details of this story online. It's a narrative that still has far-reaching consequences to this day. Eli is seen as the most successful spy to ever come out of Israel. He proved to be quite adept at forming connections with very prominent individuals of the Syrian government. In the early going, he had a ton of help preparing him for these missions. But for many years, he was all alone in Syria carefully having to send information back to Israel as often as he could. He sacrificed everything for this secretive life. That meant living a wife and children behind. Hadar Ratzon Rotem plays Eli's wife, Nadia, who understands that she can't stand in the way of his ambitions but who always wants him to return to their family permanently. There aren't many shadings to the various supporting characters. They each serve their plot purpose as the show explains the numerous actions Eli took that allowed him to climb the societal hierarchy of this very specific world. Israel and Syria are at war. Any information Eli can get out is vastly necessary in the war effort. The show continually explains how his efforts came to help his country even long after he was taken out of service. That, in turn, underlines one of the most significant problems with the piece. The action almost plays as if Eli was just consistently lucky. There were many instances in which he should have been caught but was able to improvise his way out of it. It's astonishing to see how much access he had in this foreign land. But that also showcases how his government always asked him to go deeper even though that then heightened the likelihood of him getting captured and unable to return to his family. In the end, his sacrifice was more important to his country than to anyone's personal needs. That is devastating. But the focus does remain on the personal dilemmas of the various characters. Emmerich plays Eli's Mossad handler who is trying not to make the same mistakes he did in the past even though it feels very inevitable that he will.

At six hours, The Spy makes for a very easy binge over a weekend. Of course, six hours may not have been the best way to tell this particular story. At times, it feels like the narrative is moving much more quickly to the point where it's unclear exactly how much time has passed. That feeling is present even when the dates are printed on the screen. Other times, it feels as if the show is a missed opportunity for not taking a slow and methodic approach to the narrative and just how agonizing some of these personal decisions actually were. Eli has to make all of these choices based on his instincts. He feels the pressure to support his country in a way that may forever leave them indebted to his service. He yearns for that respect. But this work is purely transformational for him. He assumes a new identity and soon begins to embrace that reality more so than the life he left behind. That is scary and precarious. It makes the audience doubt his mindset as it pertains to the choices he takes - especially towards the end of the series. It has a very finite ending that doesn't pull its punches whatsoever. But the overall impression by the end of the run may simply be seeing this as an entertaining thriller and nothing more. It's not exactly trying to make some big and proud statement about the political turmoil of this moment and how it reflects in the decisions made later on in the region. It's not a debate over spy techniques and what people should be willing to do for their country. But it's still fairly gorgeous to watch even though it's a little annoying how some scenes are shot in bright and vivid colors while others embrace a much more drab worldview. Cohen is solid in the leading role as well. Again, it's not a revolutionary concept. But it should encourage people to see him as more than just the satirical guy always causing controversy somehow.