‘The Angel’ cometh to Netflix

The long-awaited Netflix movie, Ariel Vromen’s The Angel, which starts streaming on September 14, tells the gripping story of Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari), an Egyptian who became a spy for Israel and who gave the Israeli authorities information which alerted them to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War ahead of time.

This story, which has never been told in so much detail before, would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. The movie obviously conflates some events and embellishes others, but it sticks to its fascinating spy tale. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of every detail, but the basic outline of the story is not in doubt.

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Marwan was the son-in-law of former Egyptian president Abdel Nasser (Waleed Zuaiter, who gives a surprisingly low key performance as this larger than life historical figure) and first approached the Israelis with intelligence information when he was a student in London.

Nasser didn’t respect Marwan, particularly after the young man spoke out about the need for peace with Israel at a dinner party filled with VIPs. Marwan loved his wife, Mona (Israeli actress Maisa Abd Elhadi, who did such a memorable tango in Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs), but he felt belittled by her father.

Uninspired by his university studies, Marwan got into the high life in 1970s London, and drank and gambled at clubs, and ran into debt. He made an initial approach to the Israelis so he could pay a gambling debt.

They ignored him at first, but the impulse to trade information didn’t leave him.

When Nasser died, he instantly hunted down important files he knew he could barter with the Israelis, and which would help him in the intrigues that surrounded the new president, Anwar Sadat (Sasson Gabai).

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Sadat appreciated Marwan’s abilities and gave him a post of some responsibility in his administration. Marwan managed to parlay his new job into a continuing relationship with the Israelis, during which, according to the movie, he continually tried to push Sadat further toward peace.

Some of the plot details are well known to anyone reading this – yes, war did break out on October 6, 1973, and no, Marwan was not bluffing – but some of them will come as a surprise. Marwan was involved with many Egyptian government initiatives in that era, including one that required a visit to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (Tsahi Halevi) before he became so flamboyant.

Kenzari, a Dutch actor, gives an outstanding performance in the lead role, successfully embodying the contradictions that drive many spies: need for money, a desire to feel important, resentment at those who hold power over his life and even some actual idealism, a belief that peace is an important goal.

The movie, which was directed by the Israel-born Vromen, who has worked in the US for many years, is the perfect Netflix mix of actors of different nationalities, all of whom speak in their native languages – except for the Israelis, who speak an odd mixture of English and Hebrew, even when they are alone. This is just how the Israelis spoke in 7 Days in Entebbe, so it must be part of some new, inexplicable linguistic movie trend.

There are dozens of Israelis among the cast. It was fun to see Gabai as Sadat. Gabai is currently starring in the Broadway version of the role he originated in the movie, The Band’s Visit, and will appear next month as a psychologist in Avi Nesher’s new film, The Other Story. He is quite credible as Sadat, a figure we’ve seen interviewed a great deal, and he gives a performance rather than an imitation. Halevi, who starred as a Shin Bet officer in Bethlehem and on Fauda, makes Gaddafi more attractive than I would ever have believed possible.

The movie takes place mostly in government offices, but there are some scenes set in the swinging London nightlife, which add a bit of fun.

David Arata does a good job of adapting Uri Bar-Joseph’s novel, and of blending the personal and espionage storylines.

All in all, it’s an entertaining look at a little-known story from recent history.

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