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Josh Reviews The Spy

Netflix’s six-episode mini-series The Spy tells the true story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy in Syria in the 1950’s.  This was one of my favorite series of 2019, but I realized I’d never finished & posted my full review — time to remedy that!

I watched all six episodes of The Spy with my stomach tightly clenched.  The series is a wonderful exercise in sustained tension.  I found it so intense and gripping to watch that I had almost a physical reaction watching the episodes.  I was literally perched on the edge of my seat, with my whole body tense.  This was a very intense experience.  As a result, it was almost a relief when the series arrived at its conclusion.  But that only illustrates how well-crafted this series was.

This is an incredible true story.  Eli Cohen, an Israeli who was born in Egypt, volunteers to serve his country in an extremely dangerous manner: creating a completely false life for himself in Syria.  All six episodes of The Spy were directed and co-written by Gideon Raff.  Max Perry has the other half of that co-writing credit.  (Mr. Raff created the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which was adapted by Showtime and became Homeland.)  The Spy is based on the book L’espion qui venait d’Israël (The Spy Who Came From Israel), written by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat.  Eli Cohen’s story was previously depicted in the 1987 film The Impossible Spy.  (My father says it’s a good movie, so I’ll have to check it out!)

The series is very well-paced.  I’m pleased that the show was structured in a way that allowed us to spend time with Eli before he ever begins working for the Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency).  We see what drives him to undertake this extraordinarily dangerous mission, one for which he proved to be uniquely well-suited.  This is so critical for our investment in the character.  Once Eli begins his undercover mission, I loved the way the show filled out the details of how Eli slowly built his cover and created a complete second life for himself.  I loved all the little details of his spycraft.

Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic in the lead role.  I’ve always been impressed with Mr. Cohen’s ability to vanish into a character.  Usually that’s in service of a comedy, though I’ve enjoyed, for example, his supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  That was a drama, though Mr. Cohen still scored several big laughs.  Here, he plays things completely straight as Eli Cohen.  And he’s phenomenal; completely convincing as this character, and compelling to watch go on this journey.

The Americans’ Noah Emmerich is great as Eli’s Mossad handler Dan Peleg.  It’s fun to see Mr. Emmerich back on screen in an espionage story, though his Dan Peleg is quite different than Stan Beeman.  It’s interesting to see the toll that Eli’s extended mission takes on his handler.  Hadar Ratzon-Rotem is wonderful as Eli’s wife Nadia.  She really brought life to the character; as a result, I found Nadia’s journey almost as interesting as Eli’s.

I was impressed by how beautifully captured the look and feel of Israel and Syria in the fifties.  I loved seeing all of the many subtle period details.  The production team — sets, costumes, makeup, props, and more — worked together to create a very convincing recreation of this very specific time and place.

If you missed The Spy when Netflix released it last year, I encourage you to give it a look.

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