Sacha Baron Cohen might seem a highly unlikely choice to portray Eli Cohen, Israel’s most famous, successful and tragic spy, in the six-part miniseries, “The Spy,” now streaming on Netflix.
But the British comic, who has made a career out of disguising his identity to fool others in outrageous and often hilarious ways as Borat, Bruno and Ali G, excels in the deadly serious role of a courageous patriot whose life depended on deceiving enemies of the young Jewish state in the 1960s.
While Baron Cohen, understandably, is getting most of the attention around the taut spy thriller, the man who created, wrote and directed it, Gideon Raff, has become a key cultural connector between Tel Aviv and Hollywood and his influence is profound in Israel, the U.S. and beyond.
It was Raff who persuaded Baron Cohen to play Eli Cohen (no relation), and to act in the role as seriously as he does. “He didn’t really have to be convinced,” Raff, 46, who shuttles between his native Israel and home in Los Angeles, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “Seeing him outside of his comfort zone was something appealing and scary — courageous.”
And it was Raff who created the hit Israeli series “Hatufim” (Hebrew for “kidnapped”), on which the American drama “Homeland” was based, about the emotional and psychological baggage that prisoners of war bring home with them. In the U.S. version, the plot hinged on whether the returning Marine hero had been brainwashed and switched sides while he was held by the enemy. The original Israeli series dealt with issues of post-traumatic stress and the difficult adjustments for the soldiers and their families.
“As a country, we’re obsessed with bringing the captives home, but as soon as they’re back we don’t want to know what happens to them,” Raff told a New Yorker reporter in 2012.
He chose to explore the life of Eli Cohen because “I grew up with his story,” he explained in our interview. “I was aware of the highlights and his achievements.” Cohen is credited with providing Israel secret information from Syria that helped win the 1967 war. “But I wasn’t aware of the personal story, the price he and his wife had to pay on a daily basis,” Raff said, adding that “not so many of my generation in Israel are aware of this remarkable story.”
It is one that seems more fiction than fact, though it is true.
The Egyptian-born Cohen was recruited in 1960 by the Mossad, at the age of 36, and, after vigorous training, made his way to Syria two years later as an agent, assigned to report on government activities. He was not allowed to tell anyone, including his wife, Nadia, of his secret life as a prominent Syrian businessman and playboy.
Cohen succeeded beyond expectations and was soon was accepted into the highest levels of business and government. He became so trusted that at one point he was offered the post of deputy defense minister. And his messages delivered from a hidden radio transmitter provided detailed information to Israel.
In addition to the dangerous elements of Cohen’s mission, “The Spy” focuses on what Raff calls “the huge love story” between Eli and Nadia, separated for most of the three years he was based in Damascus. A poignant split-screen effect shows the couple at various times thinking of and missing each other.
Though deeply concerned during a 1964 visit home that Syrian officials were becoming suspicious of his activities, Cohen returned to Damascus and was caught transmitting messages. After a show trial and despite pleas for clemency from the pope and other world leaders, Eli Cohen was hung in a public square in 1965. His body, which was on display for six hours, was never returned to Israel, despite the efforts of his widow, who never remarried.
Raff said he based his script on his readings about Cohen and on his meeting Nadia and the Cohen children. “She’s been fighting for his return all these years, it’s very moving,” he said.
Raff credits his string of successful productions on his ability to “tell stories that focus on the human experience” even more than on political intrigue. “That’s what makes art, and can turn into a dialogue, a bridge between cultures and people,” he said. “My agenda is my work.”
More coverage on “The Spy” here.