Here you will find no 007 brandishing a thousand reality defying gadgets supplied by the ever faithful and forever snarky Q. Here you will find the painful reality of the world of espionage
I’m a sucker for spy thrillers. In any form – books, movies or as in this case an episodic series. While most of my friends are taken in by the CIA or MI6, I am particularly fascinated by one agency in the world – Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. And if you have even a passing interest in what many deem the world’s best spying agency, you would know who Eli Cohen is.
The Spy, the real spy
Between 1961 and 1965, the world outside the cloistered universe of the Mossad and his family, hardly anyone knew who Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen, or simply, Eli Cohen. The world knew him by another name, an entirely different identity, Kamaal Amin Thaabet. Shuttling between the quiet and reserved Eli and the flamboyant and dynamic Kamaal, the dangerous game reached a point where Kamaal almost replaced Eli entirely. Eli rose to the highest echelons of power in Syria, Israel’s confirmed enemy, as Kamaal and finally ended up as Chief Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. But as with almost every spy story, real spy story and not the Bond type story, Eli’s story was eventually one of discovery, trial and then death by hanging in public. Such was the outrage in Syria where Eli operated for years as Kamaal, with utter impunity, moving effortlessly through the corridors of power, that his body has still not been returned to the Cohen family. Even after 45 years!
The Spy for reel
Needless to say, just the story is enough to keep you binge watching through the six nail biting episodes that Netflix has put together. But if I had to single out any one reason why you should spend a cumulative of 5 hours and 18 mins (run time of each episode varies from 47 minutes for the first one to an hour and two minutes for the final one), it has to be the quality of the acting through the series. Chief among them, English actor Sacha Baron Cohen who plays the role of Eli.
Cohen, and here is the critical part of the whole gig, is able to accurately feel Eli’s own emotions. Be it the man who feel wronged as an Egyptian Jew in Israel in the late 1950s or as the conflicted recruit who undergoes his first transformation into Kamaal or as the lonely man who leads a life of lies but yearns for his real life back home. Cohen is stellar and keeps your eyes rooted to the screen. That is not to say the others don’t shine. In fact, they all come together so beautifully that Cohen is able to shine brighter still.
Take Noah Emmerich for instance. He plays the role of Dan Peleg, who is assigned the role of Eli’s handler by his boss Jacob Shimoni, ably depicted by Moni Moshonov. Having been a handler to another spy who was caught and killed, Dan is wracked by guilt and tries his best to dissuade Eli from taking on what he thinks is a suicidal mission. When he fails to do that he tries to allay his guilt by trying to take care of Eli’s wife Nadia, portrayed beautifully by Hadar Ratzon Rotem. The two develop a bond that’s akin to friendship, never romantic but something inexplicably deep. Then there are the brilliant performances by Nassim Lyes in the role of Ma’azi and Uri Gavriel as Sheikh Majid al Ard. Ma’azi plays a key role in Kamaal’s ability to jockey himself into a position from where he can make his final strike up and Nassim does a fabulous job of playing the errant officer who over stretches his authority based on his lineage before becoming the wronged friend on the wrong side of a bloody coup. And who can forget the menacing Suidani portrayed magnificently by Alexander Siddig.
In addition to these powerful performances, it’s also the level of detailing that has gone into this production. From the styling of the characters to the cars they drive, and the feel of that region, everything is accurate and believable. True, if you look hard enough you might be able to spot the odd goof up but you’d need razor sharp observation powers for that. The direction is precise and has the right balance between dramatic overture and absolute reality. There’s no melodrama or jingoism or bravado to be had here. All in all an excellent series. Miss it at your own risk.