Arts

Sacha Baron Cohen is superb in this tense thriller

It’s ironic that many series on television today are rated “MA” (mature audiences), when realistically they should be labelled “AA”, for adolescent audiences – or adolescent minds. Consider the gratuitous sex and explicit language (which would once have earned films an “X” rating) of Peaky Blinders, The Last Czars and Carnival Row. Aren’t such shows really designed for the early-to-mid pubescent mind, displaying things that teens suppose will make them feel “grown up” but are really sadly immature?

How refreshing, then, is Netflix’s The Spy, a show labelled “MA” that truly is mature: historical, suspensefully plotted, intelligently scripted and beautifully acted. In a world of increasing anti-Semitism, it’s also timely.

Covering the career of Eli Cohen, a Jew of Syrian descent, The Spy is a nail-biting thriller. It begins with Cohen in prison awaiting execution – so for those unfamiliar with the background of real events, it’s easy to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong. Far from detracting from the plot, the viewer’s knowledge that eventual discovery and capture await Cohen intensifies the suspense.

The plot then moves in one more or less continuous flashback of Cohen’s time as an agent. Joining Mossad in the early 1960s, he travels to Buenos Aires and befriends high-ranking Syrians, especially Colonel Amin Al-Hafez, a member of the Ba’ath Party that will eventually seize power in a 1961 coup. By that time, Cohen has established himself in Damascus in an import-export business and rented a ritzy apartment, conveniently located near a central state ministry, from which vantage he can observe various intriguing activities, occasionally involving Soviet-made vehicles.

As he rises in Damascus society, he joins Ba’ath, and eventually gains so much trust that he is offered a post in the defence ministry. All the while he observes suspicious movements, daringly entering restricted offices where he photographs secret documents which he hides in business shipments destined for Mossad. One knows that it’s only a matter of time before he overplays his hand, especially as he telegraphs messages to his Israeli superiors even as the Syrians frantically hunt for the leak in their government.

The Israelis themselves present a complex picture, some arguing for Cohen’s return, others – the more powerful – callously unwilling to see such a profitable source go to waste. On the more personal side, Cohen’s wife, Nadia, rears the couple’s children in complete and heart-rending ignorance of her husband’s undercover life and the danger he is in.

Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedian to most of the world, gives a superb performance as the spy, supported by Hadar Ratzon Rotem (Nadia) and a uniformly excellent cast. The ending combines tragedy, beauty and cynicism, but in the world of espionage that may be as good as one can expect.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia