‘The Spy’ on Netflix: What’s the True Story Behind the Sacha Baron Cohen Film?

Provocateur. Prankster. Satirist. Sacha Baron Cohen has been called many things, but dramatic actor was never one of them—until now. Cohen is known for his roles as Brüno, Borat, Ali G, and King Julian in Madagascar, which demonstrate his goofy, ridiculous, and sometimes clever style of comedy. But in The Spy, he’s doing something different.

Stepping out of his routine of donning disguises and tricking politicians into answering off-the-wall questions and sharing their unfavorable opinions, Cohen sinks his teeth into drama in this Netflix series. As Eli Cohen, he’s commanding, stoic, and a crafty intelligence officer.

Eli Cohen, 1965
Eli Cohen, May 1965 | AFP/Getty Images

‘The Spy’ is based on the true story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli agent

Cohen was born in Egypt in 1924. During the early 1960s, he worked as a spy for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Cohen applied for work with the organization in 1956 but was rejected. A few years later, he was directly recruited by them for a secret mission that would require him to move to Syria and pose as an expat businessman.

But before he could relocate, he had to train. Unbeknownst to his wife, Cohen underwent intense preparation for the mission. One of the things he had to learn was to speak Arabic with a Syrian accent. Eventually, he was sent to live in Argentina for six months to begin his ruse.

There, he took the name Kamal Amin Thabet. After moving to Buenos Aires and establishing his identity as Thabet the businessman, he was able to rub elbows with a number of powerful Syrian nationals who were living there too. Then things shifted.

Cohen’s responsibilities for the Mossad increased

Time reports that before leaving Argentina for Damascus in 1962, Cohen cultivated a friendship with Colonel Amin-Hafez. When Hafez returned to Syria and staged a successful coup of the reigning government, he unknowingly let the Israeli agent into his inner circle.

Still under the guise of being the affluent Syrian businessman, Thabet, Cohen was given access to a wealth of national secrets. Mossad was privy to classified military and political information by way of Cohen’s coded transmissions. Syrian intelligence agents learned of his espionage and in 1965, Cohen was apprehended by the military and executed.

What does the Netflix series cover about Eli Cohen’s life?

Cohen (Sacha Baron) was cast as in The Spy last year and bears a striking resemblance to the historical figure. Not only does the series explore the work Cohen did—using only subterfuge—for the Mossad from 1960 to 1965, but also the relationship with his wife, Nadia. Due to the nature of his real job, he was forced to keep it a secret from her and his children.

Writer-director Gideon Raff told The Wrap that it wasn’t easy for Cohen to live a double life:

“In the middle of this thing is a huge, huge love story. I think Eli really thought that by living in Damascus and spying for Israel, he was protecting his wife and his children.

You know, in the last letter Eli writes to his family, the real letter — it’s heartbreaking, because he writes ‘Of course be sad a little bit, but then remarry so that the kids have a father and you have a partner.’ And she never did.”

Raff noted that in real life, Nadia Cohen her children are still fighting to have her husband’s remains returned from Syria. You can watch Sacha Baron Cohen in the six-episode series now. The Spy premiered on Netflix on Sept. 6.