'The Spy' Proves Sacha Baron Cohen Is More Than Just Borat

He may be the greatest troll alive, but he's also a brilliant dramatic actor.

by River Donaghey
Sep 6 2019, 2:59pm

Image courtesy of Netflix

Earlier this year, Rami Malek took to the stage (and immediately fell off) at the 2019 Academy Awards to accept a Best Actor Oscar for his collaboration with a pair of giant, fake teeth in Bohemian Rhapsody. And say what you will about Malek's wonky performance in an even wonkier movie, or which of the other nominees should've actually won, but there's only one person who truly deserved to take home that statue last year, and he wasn't even in the running: Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Borat and Ali G star was on board to play Freddie Mercury in a Queen biopic long before Rami Malek came along, but after reportedly fighting with the surviving Queen members about the film's direction and sugarcoating history to paint the band in the best possible light, Cohen left the project and Malek stepped in. The world will never get to see Cohen's take on Mercury, sadly, but whatever it would've been, it would've been fantastic, because Sacha Baron Cohen is one of the best dramatic actors working right now—he just needed the role to prove it.

And now, thanks to Netflix, he's found it.

On Friday, Netflix released The Spy, the streamer's new miniseries from writer and director Gideon Raff, starring Cohen as, yes, the titular spy, in his first major turn as a dramatic lead. The six-episode arc traces the story of real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who successfully infiltrated the Syrian government in the 1960s. The show itself is a tightly wound but only fitfully effective thriller, another of the many mid-tier Netflix series that have been clogging the service so much lately that they're threatening to become Netflix's upper tier, but Sacha Baron Cohen's masterful performance elevates the drama brilliantly.

For someone who has built a career around playing huge, domineering personas, Cohen's acting in The Spy is surprisingly reserved and internal, holding true to Eli Cohen even as the character slips between roles himself. And even with such a relatively subdued role, Sacha Baron Cohen still manages to dominate the screen in every scene he's in—and, thankfully, there's barely a scene without him.

"[Eli Cohen's] acting skills rivaled those of Daniel Day-Lewis," Sacha Baron Cohen told NPR in a recent interview about The Spy. "He was playing the role of a multi-millionaire businessman who'd been brought up in Argentina from Syrian descent, and maintained that persona for many, many years."

When The Spy was first announced last month, the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen as a dramatic leading man in a period thriller seemed more like a Mad Lib than a real series pitch—especially when we saw him sporting a full Borat mustache in the first-look photos. But in retrospect, a spy seems like a natural fit for Sacha Baron Cohen, since he's been slipping in and out of roles in nearly the same way for two decades.

The world may already know that Sacha Baron Cohen is the greatest troll alive, but it takes some genuine acting chops to successfully dupe former Vice President Dick Cheney into autographing a waterboarding kit on camera. It's time we acknowledge that Sacha Baron Cohen as the actor he is—at least before he takes home every award for his role as Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin's upcoming biopic about the Chicago 7. Let's just hope he doesn't get in a fight with Sorkin about Steal This Book or whatever and get replaced by Rami Malek again.

Sacha Baron Cohen
the spy
gideon raff