If you’re looking for a good January Netflix watch, look no further than “The Spy.” It is the thrilling, knife’s edge tale of an Israeli spy who rose to the top echelon of Syrian government. Eli Cohen was an Egyptian Jew who became the Mossad’s “man in Damascus” at a time when conflict between Israel and Syria was deepening, with attacks on Israel leaving Israeli casualties.
His story is truly remarkable. Indeed, in the modern era, has there ever been a spy who embedded him or herself this high into the enemy’s hierarchy? It’s like watching FX’s “The Americans,” except it’s real, and that series’ protaganists, Philip and Elizabeth, would never even have dreamed of being at the US president’s right hand.
The series takes the viewer to an Israel of the past. The Six Day War (which was won in part due to Cohen’s intel) has almost created a before and after in Israel’s short history. Cohen’s story takes place in those years immediately preceding when Israel didn’t have the Golan Heights as a protective buffer. The show does an excellent job of showing just how close Israel — and civilian Israelis — were to this particular enemy.
Stylistically, the series is shot in almost a sepia tone. Especially in the Israel scenes, everything seems a bit faded out and colorless. Perhaps this is to remind the viewer of time gone past. Perhaps it is to make the viewer wonder if people like Cohen were a thing of past. And perhaps he was. Cohen was raised in a community under fire. He made his bones as a Zionist activist in Egypt, taking part in covert, illegal operations. In the years that Cohen was active in Syria, the very existence of Israel hung in the balance. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. But that doesn’t mean that Israel’s clandestine services aren’t risking their operatives’ lives every day to maintain the security of the Jewish state.
One issue with these historical dramas that are currently so popular is that viewers often taken them at face value. Because the production is quality is so high, and the storytelling so compelling, it’s easy to assume these series are also 100% accurate. Of course, being entertainment-driven dramatizations, they’re not. As wild as real life can be, there’s usually a healthy dose of embellishment added.
So, for example, despite the series’ portrayal Eli Cohen didn’t appear totally out of obscurity, going from an office clerk to mastermind spy with no back story to explain. The production decided to leave it out Cohen’s Zionist activities in Egypt and the fact that in Israel he had served in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence unit. True, he was initially not considered for the “our man in Damascus role,” but the out-of-thin-air retelling isn’t the full story.
It’s not just a matter of nitpicky historical accuracy, like did he smoke a cigar or a pipe. If one cares about world events and the causes and effects, if one wants to opine on these events and the characters who inhabit them, it’s important to know what actually occurred, not how a series decided to portray it. For example, it is not unusual these days to hear people stating “facts” about the Royal family that are wholly garnered from “The Crown.”
The issue of the omitting the backstory aside, “The Spy” does capture the motivations of Cohen as well as tensions with and within the Mossad. The series leaves open the question of how well the agency treated Cohen, and deep the sacrifice is for anyone who puts country before person.