Defying expectation is writ large on Sacha Baron Cohen’s CV. For three decades, the actor has worn many faces as the West’s undisputed prankster prince.
As Ali G, Borat, Bruno and everyone else from his lockbox of guises, he’s yanked the noses of every egotist from Michael Parkinson to Donald Trump, before turning the mirror on the rest of us. Ensconced in our armchairs of comfy modernity, no one is safe from being shown a fool.
So why, in Netflix’s The Spy, do we now find Sacha so serious? Where’s the iconic lime-green mankini to cackle at? What do you mean, no punchline?
There is solace for anyone with their head in a spin here at the appearance of a reassuringly silly moustache, but this is a startlingly bold demonstration of Cohen’s acting chops. It’s quite the Cohenaissance.
Once you adjust, there’s plenty to ponder and mulch over in this oh-soslow-burning six-part series (serious drama seems to pace ever slower in the age of the binge watch), written and directed by Homeland co-creator Gideon Raff.
Cohen stars here as Eli Cohen, the famous Israeli Mossad agent who infiltrated the upper echelons of the Syrian government, ingratiating himself enough with its internecine leaders to gain access to state secrets, albeit at a devastating cost to both himself and his family.
It’s 1959 and, in washed-out sepia tones, Israel is rocked by rocket attacks hurled by artillery from the Syrian Golan Heights.
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Cohen (the Sacha B iteration) has called it “kind of a superhero story — a deputy accountant in a supermarket who ends up becoming the most successful spy in the 20th century”.
It’s stranger-than-fiction stuff — and viewers will have to brace themselves for a larger-than-life Cohen character not being played for laughs.
Suppress the giggles as Cohen goes through a Rocky-style montage glow-up, learning secret-agent skills such as spotting pursuers, performing pull-ups and tapping out hidden messages in code.
Stifle a laugh at the throwaway spy line “I have something called skill — not that I need much of it to beat you with”, dished out in a Buenos Aires-based game of chance.
For the most part, Cohen’s potent abilities as a character actor neatly traverse the uncanny valley of seeing a comic titan play it straight.
Like many recent Netflix hits of historical fiction (see Mindhunter), the show explores the substance of the psyche alongside the facts.
The irony of Cohen’s internal dislocation as he inhabits the role of Kamel Amin Thaabet for six years is an interesting detour to take. But it’s Baron Cohen’s own self-diversion that fascinates.
Down the years, Cohen has poked at the flabby edges of a liberal society that sat supreme. Now, as competing ideologies threaten to bring that system down, narratives of existential threat consume him.
Baron Cohen has always been on the button. Who’s laughing now?
The Spy is now streaming on Netflix.