In Netflix’s new six-part miniseries The Spy, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen, an Israeli intelligence agent who spent years in the Sixties undercover in Syria under the name Kamel Amin Thaabet. It’s a big dramatic showcase for an actor best known for broad sketch-comedy characters like Borat and Ali G. While comic actors are generally better equipped to play drama than serious performers are to be funny, not everyone has the skill to cross that stylistic divide.
But Baron Cohen couldn’t have found a role more well-suited to his gifts and career to date. The Spy is a thriller played entirely straight, but it also feels like Baron Cohen’s persona with vastly higher stakes. His specialty, after all, is to adopt a character like Borat, or like Who Is America? conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., and portray him out in the wild, opposite strangers who have to believe the character is real for the joke to work. If someone sees through one of Baron Cohen’s disguises, everybody just leaves and the sketch gets left on the cutting room floor, whereas Eli Cohen had to stay in character for months on end, with his life at stake if he slipped. But the basic principle is the same.
Created by Gideon Raff (whose Israeli drama Prisoners of War was remade here as Homeland), The Spy doesn’t dwell on the parallels between the careers of the two (unrelated) Cohens. Still, it’s hard not to see them, particularly once Eli goes from nervous rookie operative to a smooth operator who charms his way into the highest echelons of Syria’s government and society. And while there are times in Baron Cohen’s sketch career where it seems unlikely that no one is questioning the reality or a Borat or Bruno, he seems utterly plausible as Kamel, a wealthy importer/exporter who throws the best parties in Damascus.
It is, by design, a decidedly unflashy performance. Eli’s goal was to make powerful friends, but to do it by blending in rather than standing out. As his anxious handler Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich) puts it, “Noticeable spies end up dead.” Baron Cohen is convincingly understated as both Eli and Kamel in a way that’s suited to the material, even if there are only brief flashes of a wider range. Most of those flashes come fairly late in the story, as Eli begins to wear down from years of being largely absent from the lives of wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) and the children he was able to conceive but not raise during his brief home visits, and from the constant danger that Dan keeps placing him in.
Until those final chapters, The Spy is an effectively meat-and-potatoes espionage story, where the details of Eli’s mission are remarkable and taut enough to require little embellishment. But neither is there much in the way of the moral complexity you often find in this genre (including on Emmerich’s last TV spy role on The Americans). Eli never seems particularly conflicted about betraying all of the friends he makes as Kamel. There are occasional references to the idea that Eli, born in Egypt and darker of skin than many Israelis, is treated as a second-class citizen by the nation he is risking his life every day to protect — “You know what they see when they look at me,” he tells Nadia early on. “They see an Arab. That’s it. Jewish, yes, but just an Arab.” But Raff and his collaborators don’t dig too deep in that corner of their hero’s psyche. He is presented as a noble patriot who did his duty and missed his wife terribly, period.
The story is still enough to satisfyingly fill six hours, and Raff deploys some interesting stylistic touches along the way, like a muted color palette that occasionally creates the illusion we’re watching a black-and-white film from the period, or the way that Eli’s Morse code dispatches to Israel leap onto the screen so that we’re not just watching him tap on a telegraph machine for minutes on end. And Baron Cohen is ably backed by a supporting cast full of actors — including Emmerich, Waleed Zuaiter (as Syrian military officer and politician Amin Al-Hafez), and Alexander Siddig (as a Syrian official who is rightly suspicious of Kamel from the start) — whose presence in a show like this is less surprising than his own.
The Spy won’t necessarily convince you that Baron Cohen will, like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey before him, prove to be just as potent at playing serious as he was going for belly laughs. But it’s a promising start if he wants to start disappearing into characters whose goals are more dangerous than a prank.
The Spy debuts September 6th on Netflix. I’ve seen all six episodes.