THE SPY (2019)

  • Release Date: 06/09/2019
  • Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen, Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Noah Emmerich, Alexander Siddig, Nassim Lyes.
  • Directed By: Gideon Raff

Sasha Baron Cohen’s stellar act and stunning source material makes “The Spy” unmissable

Eli Cohen was a Jew born in Egypt who migrated to Israel only a few years before he was recruited by the MOSSAD to be planted as a spy in Syria. Growing up in Egypt, he saw the kind of treatment that his people were subjected to and that instilled in him a resolve to do something about it. During his stay in Egypt, he was a part of some of the key movements and actions that were taken by the Jews against their aggressors. He was also involved in the “Lavon Affair” and worked extensively to smuggle Jews out of Egypt and send them to Israel. Interestingly, he was never convicted. He was arrested multiple times but was always let off the hook for lack of evidence. This showed his ability to stay a step ahead of his aggressors and was one of the primary qualities that MOSSAD appreciated when they were pondering on the viability to recruit him.

After his recruitment, Eli went through rigorous training for six months. The training included physical training, military know-how, usage of Morse code and how to transmit it effectively and was also given an understanding of Syria, its politics, its history and the also briefs about men who would be his primary targets. When they felt that he was ready, they sent him to a MOSSAD safe house in Switzerland where he took over the avatar of Kamel Amin Thaabet, an Arab born and brought up in Buenos Aires. His parents were from Damascus, Syria. He played the part of a rich and successful businessman who was so patriotic that he wanted to leave a flourishing business in Buenos Aires and return to Damascus. He spent months in Buenos Aires building up contacts among the Arab businessmen fraternity and trying to get close to one, Amin Al-Hafiz, a charismatic general who would later seize power in Syria and become their president, when the Ba’athist overthrew the existing government in Syria in 1963.

Eli rechristened Kamel, arrives in Damascus and immediately starts finding his footing. He rents a house that is on a stone throw distance to the Second Bureau of the Syrian Military. He starts off a business of exporting furniture which he uses as a front to send back documents, newspapers, pictures and other items that he accumulates during his stay. Based on his information several key operations are undertaken by the Israeli Military that nearly breaks the morale of the Syrian Army. He soon starts establishing contacts with powerful men like Lieutenant Ma’azi, the nephew of Syrian Military Commander. There comes a time when he plays a stellar role in helping the Ba’ath party to power in Syria.

With Amin Al-Hafiz in power, things look bright for him but not for long. Amin’s chief of security, Colonel Suidani had always disliked him and he is entrusted by Amin to sniff out all the traitors in the country including what Suidani believed, was an Israeli mole. Suidani is aided by a Russian instrument that can triangulate rouge broadcasts within a city block. Kamel feels the walls closing in on him and even his handler in MOSSAD feels the same. But he still has one important task to undertake before he can hang his boots. Take up the position of Deputy Defense Minister and get access to information that most Syrians didn’t have, let alone an Israeli. Things take a difficult turn at home as well, when his brother, who also worked for MOSSAD, realizes that Eli is the “agent 88” in Syria. Coupled with Eli’s erratic behavior upon return to Israel, Nadia finally comes to realize that her husband might not be doing what he says he does for a living. What happens next is what the series is all about.

There is a lot to like in The Spy. Sasha Baron Cohen for one is astounding. We relate to him as a comic and this character is a totally different turn from that. To see him essay a character so rooted in realism and so far away from what we best know him for was refreshing. There isn’t a single scene in his essay where he drops his guard. A key point of the character is how he is losing his identity playing someone who he is not. We get a few glimpses of it during his visit back home when he makes a fuss out of small matter. We see him expose himself to his wife and fight with a security guard in the mall when the man asks him to show receipts. It happens so because, in Syria, he is at the top of the food chain. He shows receipts to none. He carries that attitude with him to Israel where he is essentially a nobody. I just loved how Baron spelled it out without much of a fuss. We see him gradually transform into Kamel. As the series progresses, we see Eli lose his identity to Kamel and all that was extremely well realized by Baron. Suffice is to say that he is the beating heart of the whole series.

The story mostly remains faithful to the actual events and even though the series has its share of inaccuracies, they can be forgiven. It can be said in the defense of the series that certain events had to be shown for dramatic impact and some others had to be compounded for the sake of finite storytelling. On a technical level, the series remains on point. I loved the cinematography and editing of it. They sneaked in real footages of 1963 Syria in between the scenes and that worked well for me. It just went on to show how visually accurate the renditions were. They even tried to match the color grades with the kind of environment Eli was in and that didn’t go unnoticed. I loved the pacing of the series. With so much on the plate, it could have easily dragged but that is never the case.

Hadar Ratzon Rotem as Nadia was brilliant. Her story unfolds far away from that of the actual plot of the series and she had to do good to keep the viewers interested in her character. She really does well in the scenes that show how hard it was for her to manage two kids, her work, the house and at the same time waiting for her husband. One scene in which she lashes out at Eli’s boss Dan (Noah Emmerich) was memorable as it shows her raw emotions in a manner that is difficult to replicate. As the show progresses, we can see her losing weight and getting worse physically. Rotem builds up a lot of emotions for her character and it works even better if you are unaware of how her story with Eli would end. Noah Emmerich is consistently brilliant. It is evident that he has some excess baggage from an operation before and that keeps weighing down on his actions related to Eli. Noah can make you feel for his character and lets you pick his mind through his actions and expressions.

Alexander Siddig plays Colonel Suidani. Suidani is the most fearsome character in the whole series. His mere presence is enough to send chills down your spine. At least that was the case with me. From the first time you lay your eyes on the man, you know that he is someone who might bring about the downfall of our hero and that is what makes him so menacing every time he comes onscreen. He doesn’t speak much but speaks volumes through his eyes. His stature and how he conducts himself adds a menacing aura to his overall act. Nassim Lyes as Ma’azi, the nephew of the Syrian Military Commander is great. He becomes closely associated with Kamel and their camaraderie gives us some key sequences of the series like one in which Kamel is forced to have sex to dodge suspicion. There is a lot of tension between the two and Lyes brings some interesting angles to it all.

The Spy is a breezy watch and will be lapped up by all those who are interested in spy thrillers. It is well made, well-acted and well-executed. The best thing about it is that it remains largely faithful to the actual events since all of it is so well documented and that gives the series even more credibility. Sacha Baron Cohen fans will be surprised to see him in such a minimalistic performance but to me, it was truly one of his best acts in years. The Spy is an essential watch in this Corona Lockdown times.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)  

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