Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to being in some serious disguises for his comedy. But in Netflix’s The Spy, Baron Cohen is going seriously undercover as the secret agent Eli Cohen. The Spy is based on the true story of Cohen, who was a member of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in the ’60s. This dramatic six-part miniseries is a bit of a departure for Baron Cohen since he’s best known for playing roles like Borat. But it’s quite in character for the show’s writer and director Gideon Raff. Raff created the Israeli series Prisoners of War that was adapted in the U.S. as Homeland, so he knows a thing or two about counterintelligence. And, as he told Forbes, the real story of the spy Cohen is one he grew up with.
For four years, Cohen posed as a Syrian businessperson using the name Kamal Amin Thaabet all while secretly working for the Mossad. Encyclopædia Britannica referred to Cohen’s work of infiltrating the Syrian military and government as "one of the most daring and productive intelligence-gathering operations in Israeli history." So, rather understandably, the Israeli-born Raff was familiar with Cohen’s story.
"I grew up on this iconic, heroic story. I’ve had books about Eli Cohen on my bookshelf ever since I can remember," Raff told Forbes. "There was always something really interesting about the story because it’s an extremely personal story of sacrifice and patriotism and yet, it always felt like it was bigger than the personal story."
The Spy will look at Cohen’s personal life, like his relationship with his wife Nadia. But Raff also wanted to show how Cohen’s espionage from 1961-1964 shaped geopolitical relations. "It’s a story of the region, it’s the story of how the Middle East got to be where it is today [and] what it was then. It’s a story of immigration," Raff said. "I always gravitate towards very, very personal stories that have international stakes."
Raff told Forbes that he used the biography The Spy from Israel by Uri Dan and Ben Porat (under the pseudonym Ben Dan) to help inspire the show. But he also did his own detailed research into Cohen’s life, like meeting with his wife and children. "I met with them and I read a lot about it and I met with people that worked at the Mossad. Not his direct handlers, but people who worked at the Mossad at the time [he was undercover]. I read a lot about the region; Syria and Israel were very different in the ’60s than they are today," Raff said. But he also admitted that not everything in The Spy is 100 percent accurate to Cohen’s life. "Then, of course, my imagination as well," he added.
Like Raff, Baron Cohen also knew of Cohen before signing on to the project. He told NPR that he grew up with the book about Cohen, Our Man in Damascus, in his childhood living room. Vanity Fair reported that Baron Cohen was raised in London by an Orthodox Jewish father who appreciated Cohen’s legacy. Baron Cohen told Vanity Fair that he was asked to be in The Spy just a few months after his father died and he "felt compelled to do it."
"Eli was meant to have just gone into Syria and read newspapers," Baron Cohen said to Vanity Fair. "He ended up being far more successful and far more ambitious, partially due to a certain recklessness. … He managed to cultivate friendships with people that he [correctly] believed would end up taking over the country."
Cohen’s career as a spy in Syria actually began in Argentina where Encyclopædia Britannica noted that Cohen befriended Amin al-Hafez. Al-Hafez would later serve as the president of Syria when the associates that Cohen made friends with in Argentina took control of Syria. All of this made the intelligence he was gathering even more significant to the Israeli government.
Being a spy is dangerous work and Cohen’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. But he is considered an Israeli hero who is credited for keeping the young nation safe, as President Reuven Rivlin noted at a 2015 event honoring Cohen. So even though Raff’s version of events takes some creative liberties, The Spy will help Cohen’s real-life legend live on.
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