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-[Television Reviews]-, EUROPEAN CINEMA, French Cinema

‘The Spy’ (2019): When Patriotism Costs Everything

Created by: Gideon Raff || Written by: Gideon Raff, Max Perry

Directed by: Gideon Raff || Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, Yael Eitan, Nassim Si Ahmed, Moni Moshonov, Alona Tai, Mourad Zaoui, Uri Gavriel

No. of Episodes: 6 (~300 minutes total)

While I imagine there is no scripted movie or television series based upon international espionage that doesn’t blend fact, fiction, and fable in some form, it is impossible to deny the cinematographic and narrative contrast between spy thrillers built as action flicks and those built as dramatic cinema. The former type include some of the most entertaining cinema in the modern era, such as Daniel Craig’s James Bond films (20062021), Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible (1996-2022) franchise, and Matt Damon’s Bourne (2002, 2004, 2007, 2016) series, while the latter include more awards-friendly material like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Gideon Raff’s The Spy. If action movies about spies remain some of the few profitable blockbusters that aren’t wholly dependent on post-production digital FX and bloated set-pieces, then dramatic filmmaking about spies are some of the few awards-bait projects that aren’t dull bores. 

The Spy, a 2019 English-language French miniseries starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the title role, is also the latest example of exemplary limited series productions funded and/or distributed by Netflix (for others, please see The Haunting of Hill House [2018], Maniac [2018], Delhi Crime [2019], and Frontera Verde [2019]). I’ve sung the praises of this format due to its flexible yet not overindulgent structure, with most notable examples lasting between 6-10 hours. The Spy, like most limited series I’ve watched of late, neither strangles its narrative to fit the arbitrary confines of a 90-150 minute screenplay nor drags on for half a dozen seasons. For lack of better words, the limited series hits the runtime sweet-spot for visual storytelling.

Spy’s narrative draws from the real-life covert operations of Mossad agent, Eli Cohen (Baron Cohen), who infiltrated the Syrian government in the 1960s and was later caught, then executed in public. Structurally, the series paces its story to near perfection, utilizing its first episode to introduce Cohen, describe his family life and upbringing, and establish his motivation to engage in reconnaissance in enemy states. Episode two shows him establishing his cover identity as a second-generation Syrian immigrant born and raised in Buenos Aires, episodes 3-5 portray his first entrance and growing influence within Syria’s business and military elites, while the sixth and final episode depicts his final moments, public hanging, and legacy. Cohen’s blown cover and ultimate fate are previewed in the opening moments of the introductory episode, acknowledging that any halfway curious viewer can Google what happened to the series’ main character, and moreover establishing a sense of impending doom for our protagonist throughout the story.

After his younger days smuggling Egyptian Jews into Israel and later emigrating himself, Eli Cohen (Sacha Baron Cohen) is unsatisfied with civilian life (top) and the meager income he earns for his wife (middle). His natural talents at spycraft and subterfuge (bottom) allow him to serve once more as a covert agent, this time at the Syrian Embassy in Argentina.

With regards to direction, co-writer and director Gideon Raff gives The Spy an identifiable look and cinematographic style. The series flaunts the most desaturated color-grading I’ve seen in any major film production in recent memory, so drained of vibrant hues or true black levels that it makes Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-2019) films look colorful. This flat, grey, and earth-toned look emphasizes the story’s dated period aesthetic, as well as its production locations’ arid climate (e.g. Morocco); it is also juxtaposed against memorable self-reflexive edits like split-screen visuals, slow dissolves, and striking parallel edits that both contrast characters’ emotional states and show the passage of time in a visual way. Furthermore, the story’s heavy reliance on written information (e.g. Baron Cohen relaying classified information to his Mossad handlers via Morse Code) is often conveyed through stylized translation texts throughout the background environment, which delivers significant exposition without sacrificing narrative tension.

Needless to say, Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Eli Cohen is a major departure from his career as an absurdist comedian and mockumentary specialist; he’s cast against type here as the earnest yet timid Cohen, an honest patriot eager to prove his career worth to his country, family, and most of all, himself. The way Baron Cohen and Raff humanize without lionizing him into some sort of Zionist superstar is admirable, all the more so due to his relatable, heartfelt development alongside both Israeli (e.g. Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem) and Syrian (e.g. Waleed Zuaiter, Alexander Siddig) characters, none of whom are reduced to stereotypes or stock archetypes.

Perhaps the only major gripe I have with The Spy is its dominant language, which one could argue is not the most cinematic trait to evaluate in, well, the medium of cinema. Dialogue in the Israeli and Syrian plotlines are in English despite the official languages of those countries being Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. I typically don’t comment on the choice of language in film and television series I review because I watch a variety of projects of different national origins and stay far, far way from dubbing, but in certain contexts this subject is worth discussion; to me, The Spy feels reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), which featured actors of various East Asian nationalities portraying Japanese characters in accented English, or Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (2014), which starred Mexican actor Gael García Bernal as a Persian journalist who also spoke in accented English. I’ll overlook linguistic inaccuracies in fantasy (e.g. 300 [2007]) movies or films set in cultures from thousands of years ago (e.g. Gladiator [2000]), but sidestepping a regional language for a more populous one (e.g. Hindi-speaking characters in the Bengali setting of Bulbbul [2020]) will always feel less authentic than, say, Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008, Spanish-language) or Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic-language) and Apocalypto (2006, Yucatec Maya-language).

Aside from that one weakness that most non-Hebrew, non-Arabic speakers won’t even notice, The Spy is another solid demonstration of quality visual storytelling via limited series in the modern age of streaming consumption. Whereas most feature films struggle to adapt true events or literary source material to two-hour timeframes and so many long-form television series aren’t worth the time of investment, miniseries like The Spy find a happy medium that best allows their stories to flourish. The Spy is a far cry from the likes of James Bond or Jason Bourne, but its quieter, dramatic spycraft can’t help but feel more relatable and emotional given its subtler camerawork and visual identity.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Emotional, well paced, and stylized in a tasteful way, Gideon Raff helps reinvent prolific comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen as a realistic, sympathetic patriot swallowed whole by the world of international espionage. Its ending isn’t happy, but it is satisfying.

However… The Spy’s choice of English as its default language is distracting at best. You must turn off that particular “nitpick-switch” in your brain in order to enjoy the story.

—> RECOMMENDED

? “There is no John Kerry; you are Abu Amir now!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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