Sacha Baron Cohen, star of Who Is America?, Bruno and The Ali G show, is getting serious. Very serious. In fact, he’s playing Israel’s top secret agent in gritty new movie The Spy.
Set in the early 1960s, Netflix’s espionage thriller (out September 6th) follows Eli Cohen (played by Sacha Baron Cohen – no, they’re not related), a Mossad agent who successfully goes undercover in Syria to expose the country’s biggest anti-Israel secret initiatives.
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So, overall, don’t expect many Borat-style laughs. Do prepare, however, to ask one major question…
(Major spoilers below!)
Is Netflix’s The Spy based on a real story?
Yes, The Spy is inspired by real events. And yes, Eli Cohen was a real person.
Like Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Eli Cohen was an Israeli clerk-turned-secret agent who embarked on a years-long mission to spy for Mossad (Israel’s version of MI6).
Who was Eli Cohen?
Buckle in for this wild history lesson: born into a devout Jewish family in Egypt during 1924, Cohen became one of Israel’s most successful spies – he’s often credited as a key factor in the country’s victory in 1967’s Six-Day War.
Before Israel was declared an independent country in 1948, Cohen spent his youth in Egypt. It’s there he failed to enlist in the military (he was turned away for his questionable loyalty) and studied electronics at University.
Fluent in Arabic, English, and French, Cohen was an attractive recruit for Israeli intelligence and he undertook a brief espionage course in the country during 1955. It’s currently debated whether Cohen undertook several Mossad operations during this year, including attempts to sabotage Egypt’s relationships with western nations.
However, we do know he settled in Israel properly – working as a translator and an accountant – after Egypt expelled Cohen and other Jews in the wake of the Suez crisis in 1957.
It’s after this move when Mossad fully hired Cohen and his real espionage career began. His first mission: posing as a Syrian businessman in Argentina.
Using the alias Kamal Amin Thaabet, Cohen made several key contacts including businessmen, ministers and generals at several racy parties (read: orgies). Pretending to be plastered at these events, Cohen was able to listen in to Syrian officials’ plans and pass on the information to Mossad.
It’s also in this period when Cohen became a real-life James Bond, allegedly juggling seventeen lovers when moving to Syria in 1962.
But it was in the following year, 1963, the intelligence Cohen provided to Mossad became critical – several of the high-raking figures he had established friendships with in Argentina seized power in Syria, including leader of the coup Amin al-Hafez.
Although unclear if Cohen was actually considered to become a Syrian Minister of Defense as some allege, it’s known he received classified military briefings and toured fortifications on the Syrian-Israeli border’s Golan Heights.
Not only did Cohen forward such vial intel to Israel, but he also planted trees in key spots across the Heights under the pretence of offering soldiers a spot of shade. It’s these trees that Israeli forces used as targets during the 1967 Six-Day War (which saw Isreal battle Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq), allowing them to take the area within two days.
However, Cohen didn’t live to see this victory. Although a gifted spy, he had a tendency to send incriminating radio signals to Israel too frequently or during the same time of day. This was how he was eventually caught by Syrian counterintelligence forces in January 1965.
He was interrogated, convicted in a military trial, and – despite a global campaign that even saw the pope trying to step in – Cohen was publicly hanged four months later.
The location of his burial site still isn’t known, with Israel fighting to bring back Cohen’s remains to his family five decades on.
The Spy is available to watch on Netflix from 6th September 2019.