Once upon a time, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was cast to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Obviously, that didn’t happen — Rami Malek’s Best Actor win proves it. So Cohen wearing a tight white tank top and a moustache in the Netflix mini-series The Spy is as close as we’ll come to Cohen as Mercury.
The physical resemblance is uncanny — but that’s about all Mercury and Eli Cohen, Baron Cohen’s character in The Spy, have in common since Eli Cohen is Israel’s most famous spy. In this six-part series, the story of Cohen's life comes to an international audience. The Spy is created by Homeland’s Gideon Raff, whose recent Chris Evans-led Netflix movie Red Sea Diving Resort dramatised another adventure in Israeli intelligence (that one involved a Sudanese beach resort used as a front for smuggling Ethiopian Jews to Israel).
Baron Cohen isn’t the series’ only recognisable face. In an almost distractingly odd casting choice, the show stars Noah Emmerich as Eli’s intelligence handler. Famously, Emmerich played FBI agent Stan Beeman in The Americans, a man so consumed by his search for Russian spies in ‘80s D.C that he didn’t realise his best friend was one.
Aside from Stan Beeman’s presence, here’s what you need to know before watching The Spy.
Who is Eli Cohen?
Eli Cohen is Israel’s most legendary spy — but he’s no James Bond. His seeming ordinariness is what makes him so fascinating. “This is a story of somebody who was a big patriot and agreed to serve his country at a very very high price, and usually without the glamour of Bond. It’s more about the minutiae of spying and what it does to your identity, what it does to your character,” Raff told Forbes.
Cohen’s childhood in Egypt provided him with the tools he’d one day need as Mossad agent. Cohen was born in 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt to parents from Aleppo, Syria. He grew up speaking fluent Arabic, English, and French, and developed a familiarity with Arab culture.
Using these tools, Cohen got started with intelligence at a young age. When his family moved to the newly formed state of Israel in 1949, Cohen stayed behind in Egypt and helped establish a channel for smuggling Egyptian Jews to Israel alongside Avraham Dar, a renowned Mossad officer. In 1955, he travelled to Israel for an espionage course. A year after returning to Egypt in 1956, Cohen was expelled along with other Zionist Jews. He relocated to Israel.
For three years, Cohen lived a normal life. Cohen and his wife, Nadia, an Iraqi Jew, had three kids together. Cohen worked as a translator and accountant. But the life of espionage beckoned returned. In 1960, Cohen was roped into an ambitious mission to infiltrate Syria. Cohen was the lynchpin: He would pose as a Syrian businessman and gain insight into Syria’s military strategy.
First, though, Cohen had to prove his credibility. For a year, Cohen posed as a Syrian emigre and textile businessman based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Under the name Kamal Amin Thabet, Cohen cultivated a network of high-ranking and powerful individuals within the Syrian community. His closest friend was Amin el-Hafez, Syria’s new military attaché in Argentina and Syria’s soon-to-be president. After moving to Damascus in 1962, that network quickly connected him to leaders of the Ba’ath party, about to assume power.
Over the four years he lived in Syria, Cohen became enormously popular — and powerful. He was the Chief Advisor to the Syrian Defense Minister, and according to legend, was nearly nominated Minister of Defense himself. He had a reputation for throwing lavish parties, where alcohol flowed freely, and so did conversation about highly sensitive matters. Enmeshed among Syria’s decision-makers, Cohen was able to transmit information back to Israel via radio.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Baron Cohen argued that his character was one of the greatest method actors of all time. “Daniel Day-Lewis stays in character for four months. This guy stayed in character for six years,” Baron Cohen said.
What did Cohen accomplish in Syria?
Cohen had a palpable impact on the Six Day War, fought between Israel and its neighbours of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan between 5th June and 1, 1967. Specifically, Cohen’s information helped Israel capture the nearly impregnable Golan Heights, located along the Israeli-Syrian border.
Years prior, in 1962, Cohen visited the Golan Heights while undercover. He took photos using a secret camera and gathered defence plans. Cohen also suggested the Syrian army plant trees near the Golan Heights to provide shade for soldiers. Eventually, the eucalyptus trees grew and indicated exactly where the Syrians were based.
Today, Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights territory is highly contested. Still, Cohen never got to see the effect of his efforts as a spy on the modern day.
What happened to Cohen?
By January 1965, Syrian officials were on the lookout for a mole. Cohen was caught transmitting over the radio to Tel Aviv. He was interrogated, tortured, and put on trial. Meanwhile, Israeli officials developed rescue plans and appealed to world leaders, like the Pope and UN delegates.
Eventually, Cohen was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death. Cohen was able to meet with a rabbi before his death, as requested. At the age of 41, he was hanged in front of 10,000 people in Damascus, Syria. The location of Cohen’s body remains secret to this day.
Cohen’s widow, Nadia, continues the fight to have his body returned to Israel. In 2018, Cohen’s watch was recovered in a “special Mossad operation,” according to Mossad director Yossi Cohen. "The moment that they informed me [of the watch's recovery] my mouth went dry and I got the chills," Nadia told Israeli TV.