I find it hard to watch spy thrillers without mentally ticking off a checklist. An agent gone rogue, haunted by a dead partner. Sharp suits and trenches. Briefings that inexplicably happen in glass- walled buildings. The hero’s den- usually marked with such Wes Anderson-esque props as floral tea sets, a spare white bed and peeling green walls. The villain’s cave- impossibly hi tech but never not accessible. Car and foot chases through third world cities or the seedier bits of the first world. Women in tight ponytails. Silence, punctuated with the click-clack of weapons that herald a fight sequence. Brutalist architecture. British or East European villains. Disfigured villains. Villains fused with metal. Maximum security facilities fronted by tall gates that always open, no matter what. A red button situation. A suitably hassled head of state conferring with a clench- jawed military general. I believe that every spy thriller can be slotted into one of five elements based on themes of threat perception and destruction- earth, water, fire, air, ether.
Based on real events, films and shows like Raazi and The Spy show us that espionage is anything but glamorous. It has none of the linearity of the heavily stylized imaginings we scarf popcorn to.
Gideon Raff, the name behind Homeland and the creator of its allegedly superior Israeli original, Prisoners Of War brings us a 6 part Netflix series so bingeable you can say goodbye to your weekend plans right now. Based on the true story of Eliyahu Cohen, an Israeli spy hired by the Mossad to infiltrate Syria’s military hierarchy in the 1960’s, The Spy speaks to the Jewry’s post-war anxiety around the annihilation of their existence. Unable to bring diplomatic or even military closure to violent territorial skirmishes with Syria, the Israeli government began to scout for a human chameleon who could cross over and pass on valuable intelligence. Hounded out of anti-semitic Egypt, immigrant nobody Eliyahu Cohen was perfect for the role. Overnight the ordinary accountant transformed into Kamel Amin Thaabet, a slick Buenos- Aires- based Syrian tycoon filled with nostalgia for his motherland. His handler tasked him with charming the socks off the Syrian expat community in Argentina, important men and women with skeevy histories that wanted a hand in the political reconfiguration of Syria. Thaabet’s money and amoral offers of help were theirs for the taking. He cultivated them assiduously, never losing sight of his real life with a lovely wife and children. He’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, his ridiculous comedic muscle vanished, his long, expressive face exquisitely transparent in its agony. Cohen the spy was so good at his job he was appointed chief advisor to the Syrian minister of defence. In a Vanity Fair interview, Cohen the actor calls him one of the greatest method actors of all time, a man who stayed in character for 6 years. In this, the Israelis drew on the Soviet spy tradition of plucking a man out of anonymity and alienating him from his reality so completely that he became his character. This was different from the American approach to espionage- shorter assignments, less character play. The key nuance was that the Israelis allowed their spies to come home on breaks as a sort of safety-valve measure for their tenuous sanity. On Cohen’s last break, he sensed that he would never return and begged Mossad to terminate his assignment. The Israeli Prime Minister vetoed the idea out of concerns for national security. The series begins at the eventual outcome of that decision.
Sacha Baron Cohen is incredible in the role. 80% of the run time you catch him composing his facial features to meet the curveballs in his way- subtle flutters, a muscle slackened, a self- conscious swing of the chin, a too- wide smile. That’s what makes this such a simultaneously tough and arresting watch- you’re watching a man contort his face to save his life. To understand how insane that is, please watch the FBI clip below on decoding body language.
The Spy airs on Netflix.