Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen in "The Spy"
Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen in "The Spy."

Netflix’s story of famous Israeli spy pales in comparison with ’87 movie

In 1987, I watched the TV movie “The Impossible Spy.” It introduced to the Western world the story of Eli Cohen, the legendary Israeli spy who, in the early 1960s, infiltrated the high command of Syria’s socialist Ba’ath Party and gathered military information that helped Israel win the 1967 Six-Day War against Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

In 2019, I viewed Netflix’s six-episode series “The Spy,” also about Cohen, but this story presented him as a James Bond character who operated in a world of flash, flesh and fantasy. Netflix rewrote history to entertain its audience.

Before I reviewed the Netflix series, I refreshed my memory of “The Impossible Spy” by watching it on Amazon Prime (a small rental fee for non-members) though the 96-minute drama-thriller is also on YouTube for free. Co-produced by BBC and Quartet International, a film production and distribution company headed byHarvey Chertok, it stars John Shea as Cohen and Eli Wallach as the director of Mossad, the Israeli spy organization. The Netflix version, written and directed by Gideon Raff, creator of popular TV series, stars Sacha Baron Cohen as the hero-spy.

There is no comparison: the 1987 film tells the real story of Eli Cohen, one that needs no dramatic additions.

If nothing else, however, the 2019 Netflix series brought renewed attention to Cohen’s story. His photo and a brief biography were added late last year to the permanent exhibition of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, in fitting tribute to a man who gave his life for Israel and is remembered as one of its greatest heroes.

The real Eli Cohen was born in Egypt to Syrian parents who were devout Jews and Zionists. A Zionist before he settled in Israel, he smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel. In Tel Aviv, he worked as an accountant and lived a simple life with his wife, Nadia, an Iraqi by birth, until he was approached by the Mossad to join the agency as a spy. He spoke Arabic, Hebrew and French, one of the skills that attracted the agency’s attention.

He trained for his mission for months, learning about Muslim beliefs and practicing Arab customs. Adopting the fictitious identity of a Syrian expatriate — a wealthy import-export merchant — he moved to Buenos Aires. His mission there was to connect with Syrian expatriates of the illegal socialist Ba’ath Party and its military attaché, Gen. Gamal Haled, who were plotting to return to Syria to overthrow the conservative Syrian Arab Republic. Successful in that endeavor, he went to set up residence in Syria, meeting the Syrian Arab Republic leader, who welcomed him into his inner circle.

From Damascus, Cohen communicated by code each day with the Mossad, sharing information essential for Israel’s defense. As a merchant permitted to travel outside of Syria, he returned to Israel at prearranged times to consult with the Mossad and visit his family. His first child was born after he started working as a spy; his third was born after he was hanged in Damascus as a spy.

The 33-year-old “The Impossible Spy” is not a documentary, but a carefully researched dramatization of Cohen’s remarkable life. Before filming began, the script was shared with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Mossad leader Meir Amit, who confirmed the story’s authenticity and granted permission to film in Israel.

When it was ready for release, Cohen’s brother, Maurice, a Mossad agent in Tel Aviv who had decoded some of Eli’s messages sent from Damascus, viewed it and also acknowledged that the story was told just as it happened.

Cohen is presented in this film as a humble man, reluctant at first to become a spy. It is only after he is fired (probably the Mossad’s doing) from his accounting job in 1961 that he agrees to sign on as a spy.

During a trip to the Golan Heights with Haled, the Ba’ath leader, Cohen uses his photographic memory to note the location of each gun emplacement. At Mossad headquarters he works through the night on a 3-D map, placing a pin at the exact spot for each one. The Mossad director, presented sympathetically, acknowledges his superb work but begs him never to return to Syria. Cohen, however, convinced he can do more for his country, returns to Damascus, where he is soon arrested, tortured, and hanged.

Wracked by conflicting emotions, Haled visits Eli in prison. Portrayed as a sensitive military man, Haled expresses not only his anger at Eli’s betrayal but also his grief at the loss of a trusted friend. “We were friends. Yes, we were. May your God give you peace, Eli Cohen,” he says as he leaves the cell, addressing Cohen for the first time by his real name.

Cohen in Netflix’s “The Spy” is not the same man. The six-episode series presents the Israeli spy as a swashbuckling risk-taker, who steals a journalist’s camera, corners a man who jumps to his death, breaks into private offices to gather information and wantonly carouses with women. He is in this series aggressive, not humble, determined to work for the Mossad though he has been rejected twice before.

This version of Cohen’s story was challenged from its inception (before filming began, its producers agreed to share their script with Cohen’s family). According to a 2019 article in the Daily Mail, Netflix received a strong negative response from the Cohens, who wanted the project canceled. The director did change small details but would not alter the basic plot. In response to objections from Sofia Ben-Dor, Cohen’s oldest daughter, about the sensationalism of her father’s legacy, he did reshape the fictional scene of Cohen pushing a man to his death from a balcony. Also, he assured them that Cohen would not be shown nude at the extravagant, orgiastic gatherings he held in his residence for the Syrian Arab Republic officials.

One of many scenes that stray far from reality in this series takes place in the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. In a flashy red convertible, Cohen and Ma’azi, the young nephew of the Syrian Arab Republic’s commander-in-chief, speed along a sinuous desert road to meet with a colonel. Leading them to a hill used for surveillance, the colonel dares Cohen to shoot at a group of men in the distance, whom he identifies as Zionists pretending to be Syrians. Cohen stands behind the mounted gun, his fear palpable. He cannot pull the trigger. Very dramatic, but fictional.

Viewers looking for a faithful depiction of Eli Cohen’s life and work would do well to watch “The Impossible Spy” and forego the 2019 Netflix show.

Eli Cohen’s body is still in Syria, despite his family’s repeated requests for its return. Last year, rumors surfaced of an unsuccessful Mossad attempt to smuggle his body out of Syria some 40 years ago, but Israel has not confirmed that story. Asked about a possible repatriation of the Israeli spy’s remains, a top Syrian official reported in 2008 that no one knew where they were.

A longer version of this article appeared at heritagefl.com.

Lenore Richman Roland

Lenore Richman Roland is a freelance writer and editor living in Orlando, Florida.