Synopsis – True story of Ashraf Marwan, who was President Nasser’s son-in-law and special adviser and confidant to his successor Anwar Sadat – while simultaneously Israeli Intelligence’s most precious asset of the 20th century.
My Take – While the Mission Impossible series continues to dominate the box office with its more action oriented approach to the spy genre, Netflix‘s latest international film, despite the initial conjecture, is not an Arab version of the Bourne films, but instead more subtle, more in the spirit of excellent films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Set amid the backdrop of seemingly insurmountable tensions and impending war between Egypt and Israel, the film tells the true story of Ashraf Marwan, a well-known figure in the 1970s history of the Egypt-Israeli conflict, who was instrumental for both sides in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Helmed by director Ariel Vromen, who following his chilling 2012 film, The Iceman, brings us yet another high-stakes tale of intrigue as we examine how Marwan became a double agent in such a turmoil situation. Featuring a cast of mostly unknowns (except Toby Kebbell), who put in exceptional performances, this adaptation of Uri Bar-Joseph’s book, The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, is mostly well-done and doesn’t attempt to be more than it is, i.e. a stylish, slick retelling of a story that for years has only been the subject of question and the hobby of conspiracy theorists. This is a film that will hold your attention if you can pay attention and keep up, rather than needing instant gratification.
Set in the 1970s, the story follows Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari), the son in law of Egyptian President Nasser (Waleed Zuaiter), who is often put down due to his strong yet opposing opinions pertaining to the unrelenting tensions between Egypt and Israel that often result in war and terrorist acts. While his wife, Mona (Maisa Abd Elhadi) continues to support his views and lavish style, Ashraf finds it hard to shake of his underappreciated ill feelings towards his father in law and his close officers, which leads him to reach out to the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, to offer his status as a bargaining chip.
However, things change following the death of President Nasser, as the new president Anwar Sadat (Sassoon Gabai), impressed with his tactics and support makes him a high-ranking diplomat in his administration. However, when the Mossad gets back to him, and offer him good money, Marwan begins using his position to feed whatever information he can get to his handler, Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell), which includes information from the meetings he attends with Sadat and how they are planning to go to war to retake the land Israel claimed after the Seven Days War. As his secret life begins to constantly threaten his wife and family, Marwan enlists the help of some friends, including Diana Ellis (Hannah Ware), a beautiful British actress, to make sure Sadat’s plans of going to war on Yom Kippur fails to go through, all the while earning the code name The Angel from the Israelis.
Clearing drawing inspiration from the tone of the Ben Affleck directed Argo, as well as director Steven Spielberg‘s underrated Munich, here, writer David Arata (Children of Men) fills the film with as much plot and background data on Ashraf Marwan, who received high military recognition from both Egypt and Israel, with a narrative sure to entice spy and conspiracy enthusiasts alike. Yes, the film is a slow burner but once it gains momentum it rarely slows in its turbulent journey to the film’s climax. The film brings a unique interpretation of the life and actions of notoriously elusive and arguably vital Marwan as see how he journeys to become Egypt’s most valuable asset, a fly on the wall, a celebrated individual in its ever-present fight for peace.
With remarkable subtlety and an intuitive pace, the film manages to weave a complete and utterly convincing order of scenarios to do Marwan great justice in demonstrating his importance in Egyptian history. Furthermore, the film is sophisticated in thought and invites the audience to be privy to the private world of Egyptian politics. While the approach does unfortunately hold us at an arm’s length since we’re never able to stop long enough to get a true sense of the people behind the pages handed from one man to the next, it’s fascinating stuff regardless. We see his growing relationship with Sadat, his deteriorating relationship with Mona, and his up-and-down relationship with his Mossad handler, Danny (or Alex). Alluding to a gambling habit, money problems, and Marwan’s love of western culture as a student in England seems clear early on. But the film excitingly explores the fine line between serving your country as a double spy and remaining incognito at the risk of treason.
Showcasing moral dilemmas that could make or break a country, as Marwan tries to find meaning and alibi in fighting between choices that could save millions and yet sacrifice his own government’s intentions. While this is the kind of story that could easily fly off the rails, thankfully director Ariel Vromen effectively conveys the unrelenting challenges Marwan must have faced not only as someone shuttling between the Egyptian government, terrorists, and Israeli intelligence, but also his private life as well. It also manages to be a very good starting point for the context of why the Middle East is such a hotbed of unceasing tension between nations.
The talented director, of course, tells the story from an Israeli standpoint; however, the certainty is that there’s no consensus in Marwan’s allegiances as the first two tips he gave his handler, Mossad agent Danny Ben Aroya, didn’t turn up. The third, the Yom Kippur surprise, would prove profoundly consequential. The best parts of the film center on the magnetic interactions between Kenzari and Kebbell, as their chemistry creates resolute stability. Hopefully, the pair will appear on film together again in the future (following this and the god awful remake of Ben-Hur), that’s how strong their synergy runs. And needless to say, with results like those, even if we occasionally find ourselves wanting to know more about not only our lead but also the people and places glossed over throughout, in the end – and like most spies – we’re grateful to the film for the information as well as the access.
Although fascinating, the film does often fall victim to dreary exposition, sometimes important but more frequently excessive. Knowing the absolute ins and outs of political intentions, unfortunately, can lead to moments of zoning out as scenes of meeting rooms take center stage for the most part of the first half. The film highlights the delicacies of political nature and the fragility of the personalities that gather to run a country. This makes the film a frustratingly intriguing watch as the audience will experience the same moral headaches as Marwan in a will to be logical about illogical situations. Also a bit unusual was the extremely lazy film separation of Marwan and his wife, Mona. Division never occurred in real life, and their relationship could’ve much better utilized for plot tension.
Anchored by the compelling Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari, who bring an edgy innocence to Ashraf’s portrayal. Delivering a 70’s charm and a tragic weight of heavy responsibility, Kenzari brings Ashraf to life to convince audiences that although caught up in a world of chaos, he is in fact only human. Toby Kebbell, a masterfully underrated actors, who is often weighed down by his bad choices like The Hurricane Heist, Ben-Hur, The Counsellor and the notorious 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, gets to portray an affecting and multilayered characters, and scores high marks. In supporting roles, Hannah Ware, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Waleed Zuaiter, Sasson Gabai, Tsahi Halevi and Slimane Dazi also stand out. On the whole, ‘The Angel’ is a sophisticated and captivating spy-thriller held steady by its stellar performances and classy direction.
Directed – Ariel Vromen
Rated – R
Run Time – 114 minutes