Did Ashraf Marwan jump, or was he pushed? Not his fall off the balcony of his luxury apartment in London in July 2007, which is how Marwan, an Egyptian diplomat turned billionaire, met his unexplained and highly suspicious death, but his tumble into the arms of the Mossad, into whose tender embraces he slipped in 1970.
At the time, Marwan was also in the even more tender embraces of Mona Nasser, daughter of Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Marwan became a close aide to Anwar Sadat, and brokered military and diplomatic deals with the Saudis and Gaddafi’s Libya. All the while, Marwan was supplying top-grade intelligence to a Mossad contact in London, while dodging surveillance by Nasser’s old advisers. In October 1973, Marwan warned his handler that the Egyptians were about to launch a surprise attack across the Suez Canal. The extra hours were crucial to Israel’s survival in the early stages of the Yom Kippur War, especially on the Golan Heights, where Syrian tanks nearly broke through on the second day of fighting.
The Angel, a new Netflix original directed by Ariel Vroman (Iceman) tells us more about how Marwan spied for his country’s greatest enemy than why he did it. Not that he lacks for motives. But, as in intelligence gathering, it’s hard to sort the static from the signal. And, as in intelligence analysis, it’s harder to weigh the accuracy of the information. Still, it’s intelligently made and played, with plenty of plotting, tension and sports cars.
Marwan (Marwan Kenzari) does not lack for motives. When he suggests at an Egyptian embassy dinner that Egypt might recover the Sinai from Israel without war, by switching from Soviet to American patronage, Nasser (Waleed Zuaiter) humiliates him. Nor does Nasser care for his precocious insight that the Soviets are doomed to lose the Cold War. Marwan and Mona (Maisa Abd Elhadi) depend upon Nasser for money, and Marwan knows that Nasser wants his daughter to divorce her ‘deadbeat’ husband. Marwan is also given to extended bouts of drinking, gambling and self-pity, sometimes with Diana Ellis (Hannah Ware), an actress who runs sex parties.
We see this, and we see Marwan, lost and depressed, phoning the Israeli embassy and offering his services. Later, we hear Israeli spies playing back a recording of his offer, which gives him no choice but to work for them. Later still, we see Marwan handing over top-secret files for cash, while hearing Marwan saying that he’s doing it for peace, and seeing Marwan, who is supposed to be studying in London, attending a lecture at which he learns about Juan Pujol Garcia, aka Garbo, perhaps the most valuable spy of the twentieth century.
Neither a communist nor a fascist, Garcia had volunteered his services in the service of humanity, created a false identity as a pro-Nazi Spanish official, and convinced first the Germans and then the British of his credibility. In 1944, he saved thousands of lives by successfully misleading the Germans as to the timing and location of the D Day landings. Garcia received both the Iron Cross from Hitler in July 1944 and, only four months later, an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from King George V. But Garcia entered his double game as a neutral, not a dictator’s son-in-law.
‘Why?’ asks Marwan’s Mossad contact, Alex. ‘Why?’ asks his wife Mona, who mistakes Marwan’s espionage for adultery. ‘Why?’ asks Diana, when Marwan won’t have a tumble with her. ‘Why?’ asks Mossad head Zvi Zamir, who at first believes Marwan is too good to be true.
‘You want to know why, Alex?,’ Marwan asks his handler as war approaches and the duplicities multiply. ‘Tell me, because I don’t know.’ The Angel is adapted by David Arata (Sons of Men) from the eponymous book of 2016 by Uri Bar-Joseph, an Israeli historian of intelligence. If we join the dots of Arata’s clever script, we see that Marwan’s deficiencies of self-knowledge and character, and his righteous frustration at being undervalued, all suit him to the espionage game, with its deficiencies of information and trust, and its promise of altering the course of history. Most spies alter only their own course, as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did. But Marwan actually pulled it off.
The Angel makes us work to understand what’s going on in Marwan’s skull, but the duggery of espionage is narrated with understated clarity. The Seventies’ setting is wall-to-wall corduroy and nylon; like Munich, Beirut and Operation Finale, there’s a visible and pleasurable nostalgia for the days when espionage was low-tech and men dressed for it in three-piece suits and big moustaches. Danny Rafic’s editing is excellent, and it keeps the plot moving when the relationship between Marwan and Alex (Toby Kebbell) doesn’t quite elaborate the ambiguities at the centre of the film. Appropriately, Israeli comedian Sasson Gabai excels in the straight-man role of Sadat. Better still, Tsahi Halevi, fresh from impersonating his military experience as an Israeli undercover agent impersonating Arabs in Fauda, plays Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi invites Marwan to participate in an orgy, but Marwan, remembering his loyalty to Mona if to no one else, politely declines. Gaddafi’s reply is The Angel’s best line, and a pretty accurate assessment of appeal of a well-made, solidly acted spy thriller like The Angel: ‘If you don’t want to taste the goat’s milk, at least watch the farmer in action.’
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.