Last month Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing the country’s founding head of state in 1948, David Ben-Gurion. As if to mark the occasion, two miniseries have dropped in the past month that explore a defining crisis in each man’s tenure. Neither feels like homework. In fact, both are workmanlike genre pieces that just happen to impart useful truths about one of America’s closest allies.
I’ve already reviewed HBO’s Our Boys, which takes a crime-show approach to the current Israeli-Palestinian situation, one largely shaped by Netanyahu’s policies. Now comes the even more blandly named The Spy, an espionage thriller based on actual events that were set in motion in 1959 when Ben-Gurion ordered his intelligence agency, Mossad, to find out what the hell was going on inside Syria.
The cause of the concern was a series of surprise attacks on farmers working in kibbutzim along the Israel-Syria border. Satellite photos showed Syrian tanks randomly appearing and disappearing. Something was up, but ... what exactly?
Unlike Egypt, whose upper echelons Mossad agents had infiltrated for years, Syria’s ruling elite was tight-knit, secretive, and ruthless against perceived threats. Nonetheless, top recruiter Dan Peleg (played by Noah Emmerich) is ordered by his boss Jacob (Moni Moshonov) to get a spy over there pronto.
“We have no idea what they are building but I assure you, we are not going to like it,” Jacob warns him.
Little does Dan realize that his ideal candidate for the Syria job is presently toiling in a boring-ass job at a Tel Aviv department store. His name is Eli Cohen, played here by a suddenly serious Sacha Baron Cohen. An emigrant from Egypt, Eli has a swarthy complexion that has made fitting into Israeli society an unexpected challenge.
When his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) asks why he doesn’t get along with co-workers at the store, Eli sighs. “You know what they see when they look at me? They see an Arab.”
Eli and Nadia write each other love notes and hide them for the other to find. Their love is strong. It will have to be. For as it turns out, Eli has long harbored a desire to serve his adopted homeland and has even twice applied for a post with Mossad. Now Dan has the application in hand and is eyeing that mugshot of Eli — a Jew who could definitely pass for Syrian.
When Eli quickly becomes his best recruit, a natural-born spy, Dan should feel pleased. But he’s not, and for reasons that are not immediately clear, he fights to have Eli’s departure to Syria delayed. When Eli goes anyway, Dan begins spending time watching over Nadia, who has to raise the couple's small children while continuing to work. Dan tells her that Eli has been hired for a government procurement position that requires him being gone weeks at a time.
The long-suffering wife is real — there is today a statue to Nadia in the Golan Heights — but the overly caring handler seems like a fairly obvious trope of the spy genre, and only works here because Emmerich also played a decent, upright spook on The Americans.
Likewise, everything a viewer needs to know is spelled out in the expository dialogue, including one scene where Eli practices his fake backstory out loud in a safe house in Zurich. There’s even an in-house Q who presents Eli with spy gadgets like a bar of soap with a plastic explosive inside, “should you need extra cleaning power.”
In other words, The Spy, a collaboration between Netflix and France’s Canal+, has a paint-by-numbers feel. When it tries to be the least bit arty, it falls flat. For instance, the first episode is bookended by scenes of Cohen in a detention cell, having suffered torture (Netflix’s excellent audio description helpfully explains that the fingernails on his right hand have been torn out). Eli spots a moth in the swinging bulb above his head; later the moth is dead. Sounds like it’s not going to end well, doesn’t it? I don’t mind this kind of heavy foreshadowing in a documentary, but in a drama it feels a bit spoiler-y.
Still, I commend The Spy for telling this story as straightforwardly as it can. People are much more likely to watch this than a documentary about Eli Cohen. And as we see in episodes two through four, Cohen’s amazing spy career hardly needs embellishment. Working in near total isolation, the real-life Eli easily moved among the enemy’s military and political elite, escaping detection for years, sending truckloads of priceless intel back to Tel Aviv. His spywork was a key reason why the Six Day War of 1967 lasted just six days.
So impressive are Cohen’s feats, it may be hard to believe that a guy off the street, a wannabe spy, actually did all this. In that respect it was genius to cast Sacha Baron Cohen in the role, since he has spent his whole career inflitrating places where he didn’t belong. In his 2018 series for Showtime, Who Is America, he played an ex-Mossad agent and gun zealot named Erran Morad and got a slew of right-wingers, including ex-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and current presidential candidate Joe Walsh, to endorse a plan to give guns to children for self-defense during school shootings.
Finally, if watching Our Boys has left you discouraged and wondering how modern-day Israel became so polarized and violent, there are hints in the events depicted in The Spy of the origins of today’s mess. David Ben-Gurion is famous for saying there was “no solution” to the problem of who should occupy the land once known as Palestine. “We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs,” Ben-Gurion said. “There is a gulf and nothing can bridge it.”
Thus, Eli is empowered to take extreme risks because whatever is being plotted in Damascus, it almost certainly represents an existential threat to the state of Israel. That enduring fear is a throughline that continues today as Israel warily eyes its neighbors.
“The world doesn’t care if we live or die,” Jacob warns Dan. “If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will.”
Sometimes it takes an ordinary thriller or procedural to make an extraordinary point. The Spy offers entertaining proof of this.
The Spy is now streaming on Netflix.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.