The Spy

The production does a fine job of portraying the characters in the era they're set in.

Netflix’s new miniseries “The Spy” shows that while several spy stories in the media glamourize espionage by making it nothing more than expensive trips to alluring locations, in reality, it might not be as fun as one thinks.

“The Spy” was created by “Homeland” writer Gideon Raff and tells the true-life story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen). During the early ’60s, Cohen worked with the Mossad by going undercover and infiltrating the government and military in Syria. 

The set-up for the series is laid out in the first scene. Audiences watch as Eli begins writing a goodbye letter to his wife, and when he gets ready to sign it, he hesitates and is asked whether or not he even remembers his own name. The scene then takes the story back six years to when he’s happily married to his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), and just started his job as a spy. The expectation after watching the opening scene is that the dangerous path Eli is about to embark on causes him to become so far-removed from his previous life that he ends up completely forgetting who he used to be.

Viewers watch as Eli goes from being nervous and excited about this opportunity to being able to pull off unsavory acts with a stone-cold face and loss of personality. As he gets deeper into the job, he distances himself more from his wife and starts losing what made him who he was, such as his beliefs, thoughts and relationships. While the work he does in Syria is vital to the story, overall, “The Spy” is much more about Eli’s struggles with himself rather than the intricacies of his infiltration. 

“The Spy” lives and breathes through Baron Cohen’s performance. While mainly known for his comedic roles, such as “Borat,” Baron Cohen may have been an odd choice for the lead at first glance, but he delivers an excellent, nuanced performance that brings justice to the story. Seeing how Eli acted before working as a spy compared to how he is by the end is fascinating, and Baron Cohen makes the transformation believable. Additionally, Ratzon Rotem does a great job as Nadia. While audiences see everything in the story, the characters don’t, and her strong portrayal of Nadia’s desperation to know where her husband is or what he’s doing at all times makes it easy to sympathize with her and her situation. Noah Emmerich, who most recently played a counterintelligence agent in “The Americans,” also put on a strong performance as Dan Peleg, Eli’s handler who helps him prepare for the job.

As the series is set during the early ’60s, it does a strong job immersing viewers into the era. The costumes, sets, cars and electronics all help create an accurate portrayal of the period.

Not only did the series feel gritty, but it looks that way as well. There are rarely any bright or colorful shots, and most scenes look mundane. This emphasizes the harsh reality of Eli’s life, as most of his work requires him to perform immoral acts in an unflinching manner. This bland and cold atmosphere makes it a world no viewer would want to live in, which also helps them understand how inevitable it was for Eli to lose sight of himself.

“The Spy” tells a gripping, real and heartbreaking true story that isn’t too widely known. While a little slow at first, the story picks up speed by the second half, and it’s hard to stop watching and miss how it all ends. With only six episodes, “The Spy” has plenty to offer for any viewer interested in history or simply a dark and captivating story. 

Contact Kira Baldau at baldaukb@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.