REVIEW: ‘The Spy’: A true story of espionage, deceit and love


Via Netflix

Sacha Baron Cohen and Nassim Si Ahmed in the Netflix Original Series ‘The Spy,” which premiered Friday, Sept. 6. Screenshot via Netflix

Jonah Salazar

This review contains spoilers for Netflix’s “The Spy”

If you told me a year ago that my one of my favorite spy stories since “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” would be starring Sacha Baron Cohen and set in 1960s Syria, I honestly would not have believed you. 

While Cohen’s inexperience with dramatic roles sometimes shows during emotional scenes as he tries to balance his two identities, he still manages to pull off a convincing performance in a role that is definitely outside of his normal comfort zone — one that is goofy, over-the-top comedic films like “Bruno” or “Borat.”

The plot follows the true story of Eliyahu “Eli” Cohen, an Egyptian-born Israeli immigrant who worked as a filing clerk in an insurance office after being previously denied from working for the Mossad, the national intelligence of Israel. 

However, the Mossad, after exhausting their list of applicants, reluctantly recruits Cohen for the task of running surveillance and gathering information on Syrian officials from behind enemy lines. Cohen sheds his identity and becomes Kamel Amin Thaabet, a wealthy business tycoon from Argentina, who wishes to return to his figurative homeland of Damascus, Syria. 

Story continues below trailer.

Sacha Baron Cohen was definitely not only chosen for the role based on namesake and resemblance alone — his performance throughout the series continuously left me wondering how his dramatic acting chops hadn’t been utilized like this before.

But as tense and dramatic as “The Spy” is, it still toes the line of corny territory when the writers explore the strained relationship between Cohen and his wife Nadia as he continues to spend more time away from home.

There are also a few scenes where Cohen tries to exhibit the stress that he is under, mostly during scenes when his cover is almost blown or as he deals with the stress of having to keep his second identity a secret from his wife, but it comes off a bit forced and even sometimes unbelievable. 

Fortunately, that is only a small part of the series, and comes at a point when I was far too invested in the story to care about nitpicky details.

The real strength in Cohen’s acting shines when he is getting to do all his espionage work as Thaabet, the suave businessman and confidant to political leaders. He can talk his way into or out of almost any situation and is always the center of attention in every room. The role worked so well on Cohen that it almost made me forget about him scantily clad in a lime green mankini

My only strong complaint about the show would have to be the ending. Gideon Raff (director) sets up this dark and mysterious opening sequence right off the bat in the first episode, and concludes the series by looping back around and showing the events that unfold right after that. 

Even though on paper it looks like a reasonable way to end a show, it still seemed somewhat rushed and loose-ended.

But the more I think about it, that’s probably what the writers’ intentions were — after all, Cohen’s life was fast, tense and scary. Loose ends do not always get tied up, and the expectations are often subverted in real life. 

Everything considered, “The Spy” is definitely worth a watch.

However, if I were to give any advice going into the series, it would be to turn on the subtitles and mute the scenes with Noah Emmerich’s Yiddish accent that sounds like me pretending to speak Russian after a few shots of vodka.