Eli Cohen is the most famous Mossad spy of all time. That’s not necessarily a good thing; spies aren’t supposed to be famous as that essentially goes against the job description. But as one of Israel’s heroes, his fame is well deserved and his story is absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Netflix limited series, The Spy, failed on many levels to portray the source material properly or bring the hero’s accomplishments to light.
As usual, no spoilers. It’s hard to describe why Cohen and the movie itself fail without spoiling it, especially for those who are not familiar with the main character’s real life adventures. But, since I still think people should watch it for the sake of understanding Israel’s history (unless you’re willing to read a book about him, in which case there’s no need to waste 4.5 hours on Netflix), I’ll avoid spoilers.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s acting skills were pretty good. It’s refreshing to see him in a serious role after lampooning for years, but it’s unfortunate that his interpretation of the real-life Eli Cohen is so far off. If this were a piece of fiction, his acting prowess would have been considered excellent. But there were too many contradictions, some brought up by Eli Cohen’s family, that took his portrayal too far from reality.
Even if we suspend disbelief in the 6’3″ actor portraying a 5’7″ spy, the nuances in his portrayal are too far off to forgive. As his family noted, there is no evidence of him being a womanizer, but the show portrays him engaging in orgies with multiple women. The show also portrays him as a jovial and likable person, even having an uncomfortable scene where a drunk friend showers him with praise for winning people over so quickly. But history books tell us his quick rise in social circles were based on him being a serious person and shrewd businessman who used power instead of charm to achieve his goals.
A theme of the series is loss of identity which led to outbursts when he was home in Israel with his family. But the family contradicts this, saying he never acted erratically when he would return from his missions. There are times when creative license calls for shifts from reality for the sake of the narrative; A Beautiful Mind is known to have made Russell Crowe’s portrayal of mathematician John Nash seem more likable and endearing than the real-life person. But in this case, creative license wasn’t necessary. Eli Cohen and his real story were interesting enough to show without edits.
On top of the problems with how the character was portrayed, there are other problems. The cinematography was atrocious. Considering the potential richness of the settings – 1960s Israel, Syria, and Argentina – there was no excuse to make it all so bland. The filter they used to show scenes in Israel as strikingly gray was a ham-fisted attempt to dim the mood surrounding the Jewish state. It was so blatant, so obvious, that one could even call it amateur. As for dialogue, it was also bland, particularly the conversations between Israelis. If one’s only exposure to Israelis was this movie, they’d come out thinking the nation is filled with passionless robots.
Again, it’s worth watching for those who don’t read much history because the gist of Eli Cohen’s tale is better than not knowing it at all.
Hollywood has shifted in recent years to portray Israel and its people in a much more negative light than in the past. For Netflix to botch one of the most intriguing pieces of espionage history is just plain bad storytelling.
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