Sacha Baron Cohen takes on a more serious role in “The Spy”

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By Lisa Woolfson
Staff writer
@lswoolf3

“The Spy” opens with the phrase, “Inspired by true events,” which changes the whole way the viewer will watch the show. Not three minutes into the pilot episode, the viewer sees Eli Cohen (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) with bloodied fingers, being begged by a rabbi to sign a letter. The audience now knows that he was captured before learning the rest of his story.

The muted, almost black and white color scheme from the show, is ripped right from “Mindhunters,” another Netflix show that takes place decades ago. It works perfectly for this show. The cinematography is exquisite, as it often is on Netflix. There are breathtaking wide shots of Israel, Argentina and Syria. The characters are framed in the most flattering way possible, and watching “The Spy” is like looking at a work of art. The writing is sharp and the characters are well-developed, especially Eli.

Sacha Baron Cohen is the executive producer and star of this serious spy drama. It is a departure from his usual comedic and outrageous material. His character, Eli Cohen, is an Israeli spy who goes deep undercover in Syria during the early 1960’s as Kamel Amin Thabbeth. “Kamel” forms close relationships with members of the Syrian government and military and eventually becomes the deputy minister of defense in Syria before getting caught and publicly hanged.

Baron Cohen has a controversial reputation. He is Jewish and is known for playing characters that make fun of Jews as well as other groups of people.

For example, as the title character in the movie “Borat,” Baron Cohen sings a song called “In My Country There is Problem” about how Jews are stealing everyone’s money and should be pushed down a well. This song is clearly satirical but definitely controversial nonetheless. Some people say that he can take it too far, even if they normally like his material.

Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Eli Cohen in the new Netflix series, The Spy. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

Betzalel Newman, a self-proclaimed Sacha Baron Cohen fan and senior government and politics major at this university, says Baron Cohen one time crossed the line “by misrepresenting someone else’s identity, rather than his own like he usually does, and blatantly mistranslating his interviewee’s words in a libelous way”. This is in reference to when Baron Cohen framed Atman Abu Aita as a terrorist in his movie Bruno, which was a complete lie.

“The Spy” is an international show that takes place across three countries, but there are some aspects of it that lack global authenticity. Besides one-word phrases and utterances, there are hardly any languages spoken other than English on this show. Even though it was created for an English-speaking audience, it would have been realistic for Eli Cohen to have a language barrier with a government official or to order his food in another language. Also, some characters slip in and out of accents that are mediocre to begin with, particularly Dan Peleg (played by Noah Emmerich).

One of Baron Cohen’s most controversial roles was as Borat Sagdiyev, popular in the Academy-award nominated, 2006 hit movie “Borat.” This was a mockumentary about Borat traveling from Kazakhstan to the U.S. with his producer to learn about American customs. When the movie first came out, it was banned in every single Arab country, except Lebanon. According to an article from The Guardian, Borat was called “vile, gross, and extremely ridiculous” by a censor at Dubai’s Ministry of Information.

“He very often upsets people with his humor,” said Dirk Holzman, a senior vocal performance and electrical engineering major, of Baron Cohen. “However, I think that the social commentary is typically interesting if you can get past the crude humor at the surface.”

“The Spy” could not be any further from Borat. Eli Cohen is a smooth, if sometimes careless, James Bond- type spy, and the show contains little humor. This show is everything people like to see in a spy drama. It takes place in the 60’s, it’s glamorous and it has international intrigue, romance and cool gadgets.

However, the show ends in tragedy, unlike fictional spy shows with a similar tone. Baron Cohen is known for his comedy and his outrageous stunts, but in “The Spy” he leaves his mark as a talented, serious actor.

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