Boxset Monday: The Spy (season one) (France: OCS; UK: Netflix)

Stirring stuff – if you're Israeli

The Spy

In France: Available on OCS
In the UK: Available on Netflix

Gideon Raff seems to be on a one-man mission to publicise historic Mossad spying missions. The creator of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was the basis for Showtime (US)’s Homeland, he’s been trying to carve a niche for himself on US TV for a while, using his knowledge of the Middle East to give us the “squint and you can see it’s a biopic of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad” Tyrant and the “squint and you’ll see it’s Dan Brown in Israel” Dig. Neither of them were what you’d call successful.

But thanks to Netflix, he seems to have a place at last. This year alone, we’ve had the movie Red Sea Diving Resort, detailing how a bunch of Israeli spies set up a hotel in Sudan to help Ethiopian Jews escape to Israel in the 1970s, and now The Spy – both of which are written and directed by Raff.

Also based on a true story, The Spy improbably sees former Ali G/Bruno/Borat Sacha Baron Cohen playing Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who had worked in Egypt pre-Suez Crisis but who was rebuffed by Mossad when he attempted to join them shortly after his return. However, after two years of working as an accountant at a department store, Mossad – primarily in the form of Noah Emmerich (The Americans, The Hot Zone) – decide to give him a second chance.

After training him up in elementary tradecraft, six months later Cohen is dispatched to Syria, in an effort to garner intelligence about Israel’s increasingly belligerent neighbour. Emmerich, however, is worried – is Cohen too keen to be spy? Is he going to make mistakes in his eagerness and over-reach? Time will tell…

Noah Emmerich and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy
Noah Emmerich and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy

Spy-hole

The Spy suffers at two levels. Firstly, Raff is neither a great writer nor a great director. He always seems to have the germs of some really good ideas but the execution is usually off and dull. Red Sea Diving Resort has a fabulous central idea – spies run a hotel! For real! That gets condensed down to a montage scene lasting two minutes at best. That’s a waste.

Here, at least, Raff has help from co-writer Max Perry, whose contributions to the final three episodes seem to lift them considerably above their predecessors. But the initial three plod along, often have poor structure and generally fail to persuade you this story is worthy of your time.

The second problem is Raff seems to be too close to the story. Even though the story starts with a time jump forward to Cohen’s capture, Raff never takes advantage of that leap to actually explain why we should care about Cohen’s story. Why is he important? For all I know, Cohen might be a national hero, whose life story is taught in schools in Israel, but despite being reasonably interested in spy stories, to say the least, I’d never heard of him. Yet Raff seems to assume we all went to the same school as him and learnt the same history lessons.

To be fair, it becomes very clear in later episodes why Cohen was so important, particularly once names such as bin Laden and Arafat start cropping up. But before you get to that point, you’ll have had to sit through more than three hours without explanation of Cohen organising furniture deliveries and going to parties in Syria, while his wife (Hadar Ratzon-Rotem) toils back in Israel without her husband. Gosh, being a spy is a lonely business, isn’t it? I wish some other piece of fiction had already made that clear.

There’s also an implicit “Syria: bad; Israel: good” bias to the show that probably would go down well in Israel, but goes down less well with an international audience. The Spy is considerably one-sided and while the show does cover certain events that make you understand why Israel is so implacably set against Syria, most of the Syrians in government seem to metaphorically twirl their moustaches and cackle evilly. The biggest name among the Syrians is Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Falcón), who gets roughly five lines in the entire story, the rest of the time just moving around staring nastily at everyone before killing or torturing them.

There’s no real explanation of specifically why Syria might dislike Israel and be doing absolutely everything it can to destroy it at this time, beyond the occasional line of dialogue suggesting “they steal our water, we steal theirs”.

The Spy
Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy

I spy success

Where The Spy succeeds, it does so to a certain extent despite Raff. Once things escalate in episode four, The Spy does become an exciting piece of work that would sometimes be implausible were it not for the fact that what it’s showing is largely true.

Yes, he really did give them those eucalyptus trees, which became so important in the Six Days War. Yes, he really did become (spoiler alert) Syria’s Chief Adviser to the Minister of Defense. Yes, he really did stop a plot by Osama bin Laden’s dad.

It would be tempting to say Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is revelatory. Certainly, it’s very good and is a rare dramatic turn from a man best known for comedy. But clearly he has to be a good actor, otherwise he’d never have got away with all those stunts he did in real life. So I’d say his performance is more confirmatory, rather revelatory.

The rest of the cast is variable. There’s several American actors, including Emmerich, whose attempts at Israeli accents don’t really sit so well alongside those of the largely Israeli cast – you’ll have noticed at least two of the season 2 cast of False Flag before the end of the first episode, for example. But at the very least, everyone gives solid, workmanlike performances.

It also has a nice big budget to cover location-filming and lavish period detail, making it an extremely good-looking affair, too.

The Spy
Hadar Ratzon-Rotem and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy

Spy wears

The Spy is a reasonably decent, but one-sided drama that’s slow to take off. When it does, it offers thrills and tension. However, it’s also cliché-ridden and trite, plodding through the usual bog-standard tropes of the genre.

It just could have been a lot better if someone other than Raff had been behind it.

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