From CIFF: “The Spy”

It seems like forever ago that we settled into our cushy seats at Village Theatre, buttery popcorn in hand, chatting with friends as we waited for the house lights to dim and the curtain to go up on that beautiful big screen. At Coronado Island Film Festival we talk about that a lot, wistfully, and promise to never, ever take that unique, magical experience for granted again, once this is over.

Meantime, we confess, our television set is now our new best friend. In addition to the many great movies available to us on the small screen, there is some really, really good stuff made just for TV. The Netflix 6-part series, “The Spy,” is a John le Carré -type spy thriller starring Sacha Baron Cohen, who shows us in no uncertain terms that his range as an actor is so much more than the wacko, outrageous comedy character we’re used to (“Borat; “Who is America?”). Written by Gideon Raff (“Homeland) and set in the 1960s, it tells the true story of Eli Cohen (no relation), a poor grocery store accountant who is recruited by the Israeli Mossad to pose as Kamal, a rich Syrian businessman who infiltrates the Syrian government. Eli Cohen, who is arguably the most successful spy of the 20th century, led this Eli/Kamal double life for six years, spending long, harrowing stretches of time away from his family, who, by necessity, were completely unaware of his true line of work. He is not your Hollywood, James Bond-type spy; Eli Cohen is the real deal. He is deeply emotional and increasingly troubled by the constant tensions within him due to his obligations to his country, his loyalty to his family and his struggle over who he really is.

Sacha Baron Cohen, who also produced the series, worked diligently with dialect coaches to master the accents needed for the role. Eli was born in Egypt, requiring a believable Egyptian accent. As Kamal, he was pretending to be an Argentinian of Syrian descent whose mispronunciation of a word could have cost him his life. Sasha also spent a month in Morocco to observe how rich Arab men flirted with women, which was part of his Kamal persona.

It is interesting to see Sacha Baron Cohen so completely inhabit this role, which, in essence, is two roles: Eli and Kamal. To watch the transformation of simple grocery store accountant and family man Eli to erudite, elegant Kamal in expensive suits, ordering wines that cost more per bottle than a month’s of Eli’s rent back home is taut television drama, friends. Made more so when you remind yourself that Eli Cohen was a real guy, brave beyond belief. It’s nice to know his name.

As summer is officially upon us, CIFF continues to explore fun, innovative ways to safely bring the magic of the movies to Coronado. We’ll keep you posted as plans develop. Our website is constantly updated with news and new opportunities:

Meantime, we hope this finds you healthy and safe as Coronado continues to navigate these uncertain COVID times. Please keep supporting our local restaurants and businesses, and remember, “Masks are cool”…. Just ask any super hero!

Doug St. Denis is the founder and chairman of Coronado Island Film Festival and can be reached at

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