Manager – Gideon Raff
The Spy. He does not combine them for the sake of brevity (or humility), but rather, in highly irregular shape, doubles down on them, giving herself a joyful pat on the back prior to each episode has started, and again, once it has stopped.
As irritating as it is to see his name over and over and again, this knowledge is useful when you’re searching for a person to assign blame upon to the show’s many missteps, but also when you’re searching for a person to praise when it sometimes succeeds. It resides and it expires on the back of its founder’s sensibilities.
See The Spy trailer here
The six-part miniseries takes less than two weeks following his highly problematic Netflix movie, The Red Sea Diving Resort. The Spy is a much superior experience, but one thing is abundantly clear today: Raff is a far better match for television than feature films. Long-form storytelling irons out a few of his more controversial tendencies, which were there for all to see in The Red Sea Diving Resort, a movie that had the exceptional ability to offend unique audiences depending on which corner of the world they came from. So while I discovered its divisive politics rather upsetting, others believed it observed that the White Saviour trope.
And by complete coincidence or by design, the lead character’s skin color has an significant part in the Spy, also. Eli Cohen’s Arab look was one of the major reasons he had been handpicked by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, to tackle an extremely dangerous mission in the 1960s. He would be their man in Damascus, Syria, in a tumultuous time between the states. He would set himself as a patriotic Syrian businessman, host lavish parties for statesmen and military officers, and relay whatever he sees to his handlers back home.
It took me a complete episode to take Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli, which is a pity, because after the first shock of seeing him, a comic legend, deliver a dramatic performance wears off, he’s shown to be quite excellent in the part. The accent that originally seemed like it belonged to one of his Who’s America? Characters becomes distracting as the celebrity sneaks under Eli’s skin. As wide as some of his choices might be, Sacha Baron Cohen can be disarmingly subtle, also.
While Eli is revealed to be a normal family man who enjoys his spouse, his Syrian secret identity, Kamel, should wield an unusual confidence because he develops relationships with significant Syrian figures; he has to be sociable and charming, authoritative but not arrogant.
The writing can be rather plain. As expensive as The Spy feels and looks (save for a glaring moment where modern cars can be found on the roads of 60s Damascus), it’s decidedly lowbrow in its treatment. It’s the type of show where fireplaces tend to make themselves available when letters are in need of burning; the type of show where, if wives are being overlooked, a lookalike appears from thin air to be followed on the roads; where key talks are conducted within earshot of precisely those men and women who should not be hearing them.
It kind of makes sense that the series is a smoother ride when it’s centered on the character of Eli, rather than when it slips into that uncomfortable ideology that Raff routinely finds himself veering into. You see, most of what was recorded about Eli’s life is from an Israeli perspective. To them, he’s a national hero; a guy who played a vital role in his nation’s success in the Six-Day War.
I have always thought of Israelis as a paranoid men and women. As a young child, minding my own business away from the French cultural center in New Delhi, I was approached by a man in dark glasses and a suit – he seemed just like a secret agent! As he walked back across the road, I learned that he worked the safety in the Arabian Israeli embassy. I was afterwards told that the Israelis across the road kept a much better record of the goings on in the French cultural center in relation to the French themselves. To be clear, this was in New Delhi, possibly in the mid-2000s.
Israel of the 1960s was a really different place; it had been once the seeds of the country’s current belligerent attitude were sown. And Raff, to his credit, offers a type of explanation for his nation’s psychology back them. Since barely two years before Eli was sent into Syria — his patriotism tapped for the greater good of his country — the Israelis felt that they were let down by the world, and made to think that if they did not look after their own people, nobody would.
The Spy is not perfect, but it has the humanism of Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi and Yoon Jong- bin The Spy North — both recent benchmarks for the genre.