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Sacha Baron Cohen shows off serious side in ‘The Spy’

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(CNN) — Sacha Baron Cohen provides another reminder that being a clown requires serious acting chops, which the famous prankster puts to use in “The Spy,” a taut Netflix limited series based on a pretty remarkable true story. Set in the early 1960s, it’s the Israeli version of James Bond, with a gritty edge and constant sense of jeopardy.
Shot in washed-out tones, and written and directed by Gideon Raff (“Homeland”), the six-episode project casts Cohen as Eli Cohen, an Israeli Mossad agent who infiltrated the Syrian government, ingratiating himself enough to its fractious leaders to gain access to their secrets, albeit at a great cost to him and his family.
There is, admittedly, a certain level of cliché built into the premise, beginning with Eli’s Mossad handler, Dan Peleg (“The Americans'” Noah Emmerich), who wrestles with the guilty of an agent that he lost under similar circumstances, as well as the toll on Eli’s wife (Hadar Ratzon Rotem), who he must deceive — along with everyone else — but the actual nature of her husband’s activities abroad.
Still, “The Spy” provides a more John le Carre type of espionage, where the threat of exposure and death plays out against a backdrop of small ruses and feints. In Eli’s case, he plays his marks by pretending to be a wealthy businessman, one who curries favor among military and government leaders, and when necessary, plays them against each other.

Sacha Baron Cohen (center) in ‘The Spy’
The underlying thread, meanwhile, involves Eli’s psychological profile, which indicates to Dan that he’s so eager to prove his worth as to be willing to take extraordinary risk. Moreover, he’s operating in the field with little contact with his bosses back home (the nature of 1960s communication poses problems in this line of work), forcing him into a series of hair-trigger decisions.
The most amazing part of this story, however, is how long Cohen’s act dragged on, as he spent years embedded in the upper echelon of Syrian society. “The Spy” captures both the personal and psychic toll of that, as told through episodes that often pick up many months after the previous one ended.
Cohen (who also produced the project) has done his share of conventional acting, including roles in “Les Miserables” and “The Dictator.” Yet for those who know him only for his astonishing improv skills in “Who is America?,” “Borat” or “Da Ali G Show,” it will be something of a revelation to see him so thoroughly inhabit a dramatic part, complete with the personality change Eli must undergo when he enters Syria.
In the process, he delivers a solid addition to that filmography, one that makes the question “Who is Sacha Baron Cohen?” a more complicated target.
“The Spy” premieres Sept. 6 on Netflix.

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