The first thought you’re bound to have about the true-story thriller The Spy is surely that this represents Sacha Baron Cohen playing starkly against type. This is, after all, the man who played Ali G, Borat, and Brüno, through all their absurd scatological depths, turning up out of the blue as frontman of a serious docu-drama.
But the second thought is that it isn’t so very different from his previous work after all. From the second episode onwards, his character Eli Cohen spends pretty much every minute onscreen under an assumed identity – and, what’s more, is doing this for the purposes of seeing how he can get people to react to the guy he’s pretending to be, and what payoff there is to be had from it. The stakes may be higher, but it’s the same game he’s playing.
As such, Cohen (the actor, not the spy he portrays) finds himself taking to the realm of drama very well, though it’s perhaps a mistake to think comedy is the lesser challenge. It’s been said that comedians need to act just as hard as any other actor, but they have to make it funny too. Still, a 1960s-set espionage drama is a pretty lofty hurdle for one’s first go – especially considering that category also covers classics of the genre like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Manchurian Candidate, and of course the Connery-era James Bond films.
For all that he’s playing a well-heeled spy living the high life on a glossy location shoot, Cohen never comes off all that Bondish, chummy and amiable where Bond would quip and hit someone. Perversely, a better candidate for Bond territory comes with Alexander Siddig’s sleek interior-ministry goon, who demonstrates very clearly why Big Sid was so wasted in Game of Thrones. Here he’s so funereal and scowly he ends up looking alarmingly like Nazi press wizard Josef Goebbels – so, if nothing else, quite a presence.
Dramatisations of real events always live under the shadow of already-existing spoilers. How this show ends has been public knowledge for some fifty years. For this reason, not unsensibly, The Spy begins with a glimpse of how Eli’s career undercover in Syria ultimately ends up, before leaping back to where it all started. In many works this kind of wild flashing forward and back would be insufferable, but in the depiction of events some fifty years ago, it works. Similarly, the occasional snippet of old film from the time isn’t jarring, but rather helps to convey that what you’re watching actually happened.
The other aspect to consider in the dramatisation of real events is how well they’re conveyed. The one obvious blunder comes early on, with a cough-and-you’ll-miss-it mention that Eli was involved in the Lavon Affair. This doesn’t refer to a dalliance with a fragrant woman named Lavon. Rather, it’s the revelation that Eli didn’t start off as an office-boy everyman with fanciful dreams of being in the Mossad, he had already been intimately involved with the hardboiled history of the Zionist movement (a story worthy of far more screentime than it’s received). This is, granted, tangential to his adventures in Syria, which after all make up the meat of the plot, but leaving the audience all-but-ignorant of this casts the character in a distinctly different light. Without it, this apparent innocent leaping headfirst into field ops – even with the benefit of a training montage – seems like quite a jump.
Admittedly, this is drawing close to the perennial risk of judging a based-on-true-events drama on what really happened, rather than its merits in and of itself as a drama. That said, my limited research suggests that most of the more fanciful stuff, the stuff a casual viewer would take for an artistic flourish, is actually true to life. Eli’s family really did find out what he was up to overseas because of a quite astonishing coincidence involving a sewing machine. When members of the bin Laden family (including little Osama, that rascal) show up, it feels like a historical villain roll-call, like a work set in 1920s-era Austria running into a certain painter with a toothbrush moustache and a fanatical gleam in his eye – but no, apparently this too really happened.
For a Promised Land, Israel is shot in a starkly washed-out way that borders on greyscale at times, in dramatic contrast to the blazes of colour that are Argentina and Syria. The latter is, of course, Israel’s next-door neighbour, sharing its climate and geography, yet of all the places depicted in the show, it’s only Switzerland, tucked away in central Europe, which is shot in anything like the way Israel is.
The obvious explanation is that this serves the narrative. In Israel, and to an extent Switzerland, Eli is still in safe, friendly territory. Argentina and Syria both carry the frisson of excitement that comes with being on the other side of the wire. It is here that he’s actually being a spy – and most of the time Cohen seems to be enjoying it an awful lot, bearing the same kind of grin he used to wear when Ali G got some important man in a suit to talk in fumbling terms about prostitutes or rap music.
Ironically, for most of the miniseries, the ‘safe’ territory back home covers the show’s more harrowing material, that of the family Eli’s left behind. Here is the reason why James Bond, like Batman before him, was safely orphaned before his adventures ever began – and crucially, never sticks with a woman for longer than two hours. Even without knowing the sword of Damocles is poised somewhere over Eli’s head, Mrs. Cohen has a rough enough time of it without him. These sections do stick to playing on the one bleak note for the most part, but they’re used sparingly enough that it’s not to the detriment of the show.
And again, this serves the narrative. Eli’s adventures can be so dramatic, so ready-made for the screen, the show needs some other more realistic facet to bring it all back down to earth a bit. (There has been a previous film adaptation of Eli’s story, titled – justifiably – ‘The Impossible Spy’.) Without Nadia’s parallel plotline, it’d be a lot harder to believe it’s a real story being told. Which isn’t just a vital quality because it’s based on true events (based? Hell, it is true events). Any narrative, even those set in candyland, needs a degree of verisimilitude. The Spy, as elaborate as its story might get, has that in spades, studded throughout with moments of exquisite tension worthy of Vince Gilligan. But perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that you do feel as if you’re watching unadulterated episodes of Eli Cohen’s life.
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