Sacha Baron Cohen spent much of 2018 fooling the hell out of his targets on Showtime’s politically satiric Who Is America? That series felt like the peak of the comedian’s ability to pull the wool over people’s eyes while adapting various personas and disguises (even including his most mainstream instance of success, 2006’s Borat), but he somehow manages to top himself with a sobering turn in Netflix’s limited espionage TV series, The Spy.
I did, admittedly, go in skeptically and thinking to myself, “Oh, this is when Sacha Baron Cohen gets serious, right? We’ll see how that goes.” That’s partially because the timing of this series felt, well, coincidental after Rami Malek won an Oscar for playing a role that Baron Cohen exited after unsuccessfully pushing for a super dark portrayal of Freddie Mercury. I don’t know, man, it kinda felt like Baron Cohen had something to prove at this moment, and I wasn’t entirely confident that he had the chops to pull off an intensely dramatic performance. Well, he does indeed pull it off, and remarkably so.
The Spy was also a curious vehicle to “go dramatic” in that most of Baron Cohen’s performance is understated. There are layers to the show and his portrayal, which doesn’t give him the opportunity to be overtly theatrical, and certainly not right out of the gate. For the most part, he embodies an unassuming but influential figure who smoothly ascends to the highest social echelon of 1960s Syria. It can get a little confusing to discuss, but to keep things straight: Sacha Baron Cohen portrays real-life Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who goes undercover in Damascus as Kamel Amin Thaalbeth, a wealthy Syrian businessman who gains the trust of military leaders and the wealthy on an unprecedented level. He strikes up a slow burn at first but is eventually named Syria’s Deputy Minister of Defense, which launches a dizzying spiral of developments that barrel toward a (historically) tragic but triumphant end.
Got that straight? As Kamel, Cohen infiltrates Syria’s anti-Israel secret initiative and gains game-changing intelligence. He’s essentially a one-man world builder for much of his screentime, and that eventually forces Baron Cohen to dive deeper, emotionally, as the series builds toward a heart-pausing climax. The espionage show also arrives with quite the pedigree in addition to its leading man: Gideon Raff (Prisoners of War, Homeland) creates and directs; Noah Emmerich (The Americans) portrays Cohen’s conflicted Mossad handler; Hadar Ratzon Rotem (Homeland) plays Cohen’s wife, who develops her own suspicions about the true nature of his job; and Waleed Zuaiter (Colony) steps in as Amin Al-Hafz, a military officer who gets more than he bargained for when he falls for Cohen’s undercover identity. Watching Cohen’s character maneuver around each of these central players in his life (er, lives) is fascinating. He is, of course, driven first and foremost by the desire to serve his country, and he leaps headfirst into his new self, leaving his family and former life behind.
It swiftly becomes evident to viewers that this undercover life threatens to consume the old one, and Eli Cohen pretty much stops existing for years, only to surface in brief flashes of emotion that allow Baron Cohen to pull off a multifaceted performance in the subtlest of ways. At first, he’s eager and awkward as Cohen, who struggles to bury himself in the cloaks of his new persona as the old one slowly begins to slide away until what mostly remains is fervent-yet-restrained enthusiasm for his nation’s cause. He must swallow his principles to lie to everyone he meets and befriends, and there are fleeting moments where it’s evident that he’s very troubled by his surroundings, like when he visits Syrian forces in a location that later becomes pivotal during the Six-Day War.
Meanwhile, Cohen’s handler frets over potential consequences and international fallout as the agent very literally risks his life. History tells us that this tale is a grievous one, although this series fully invests itself in the protagonist’s journey as the years tick by, and he amasses and transmits intel with both an impressive volume and value with history-altering results. The episodes tick along pretty fast as an espionage story that leans toward the procedural side of its story for much of the run, which is mercifully short in comparison to many series (even limited ones) these days.
In the end, The Spy ends up being a relatively economical bingewatch that clocks in at six hours with little time wasted. Even the tiniest, seemingly inconsequential things that happen along the way — as Cohen subtly influences military officers who adopt his field suggestions — come full circle in the final episode. It was a masterful performance by Cohen in the 1960s, and Baron Cohen handles and updates it well for 2019. The Spy may not draw huge viewing numbers for Netflix, but it positions its star for even greater dramatic projects. And I’m left looking forward to Baron Cohen’s next move, which hasn’t been the case in at least a decade.
Netflix’s ‘The Spy’ streams on September 6th.