It is a truth universally acknowledged that spy and espionage TV shows will always be popular on the small screen. From the 1950s Spycatcher to the 1960s Secret Agent Man, these stories of men (and women) going undercover have always fascinated audiences. Now, Netflix is getting into the intelligent agent game, with its latest miniseries, The Spy. But this 1960s period piece, set in Israel, feels like something that could have happened in real life. Fans are asking, is Netflix’s The Spy based on a true story? Turns out, it is.
The Spy also will probably surprise viewers when they realize who stars in it. The lead role of Eli Cohen is played by none other than Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian of Borat and Ali G fame. This is one of his first forays into doing a serious, dramatic role. In doing so, he chose to tell the story of a real-life Israeli hero.
The name Eli Cohen may have mostly faded into obscurity, lost in the sands of 1960s-era history. But in Israel, he is still considered a national hero to this day. His undercover work is credited in helping Israel's success in the 1967 Six-Day War. In the words of Sacha Baron Cohen, speaking to TVInsider, he was "probably the most successful spy in the 20th century."
So who was Eli Cohen, and why is he revered so highly? Born in 1924, Eliyahu (Eli) Cohen was raised in Egypt, the son of Jewish parents. When the state of Israel was created in 1948, according to reports, Cohen began working as part of a spy network to assist other Jewish people in Egypt to emigrate to the newly formed country, including his family.
A few years later, Israel’s Mossad (one of the main entities in the Israeli Intelligence Community) wound up recruiting him to be part of their network. They sent him to Syria to work undercover, and become "the eyes and ears" for what was happening in the Golan Heights. He took on the persona of Kamal Amin Thaabet, first posing as a Syrian ex-pat in Argentina, before moving "back" to Damascus.
Once Cohen was established in Syria as Thaabet, he became the sort of wealthy businessman who threw parties which included government officials, especially ones working in the Defense Ministry. Between wining and dining officials and providing women and loans for those hard up, Cohen worked his way up to a position of trust. He became friends with Colonel Amin Al-Hafez (played by Waleed Zuaiter) while fending off uncomfortable question from Colonel Ahmed Su'edani (Alexander Siddig). Cohen worked his way up pretty far with Al-Hafez and was supposedly even considered to be put in charge of the Defense Ministry.
The TV series is pretty faithful to events as reported at the time, especially when it comes to Cohen's eventual discovery and arrest in Syria. Despite an international campaign by the Israeli government to have Cohen returned to them, the Syrian regime first tortured and then publicly executed Cohen in 1965.
All six episodes of The Spy are now streaming on Netflix.