Ashraf Marwan was a kind of Middle Eastern Herbert Philbrick.
Philbrick, a Boston advertising executive, infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party on behalf of the FBI. His exploits as a double agent were immortalized — actually exaggerated — in a long-running 1950s television series, “I Led Three Lives.” Those lives? Citizen, communist, and counterspy.
Marwan is the subject of “The Angel” — his codename — the new Netflix flick about a man who may have had even more than three lives. He was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, a close adviser to his successor Anwar Sadat, a notorious gambler, and a spy who spied for Israel and perhaps worked as a spy for Egypt as well.
The film largely is based on Uri Bar-Joseph’s book, “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.” But as with any film “based on real events,” there are two significant problems: the need to embellish for cinematic purposes, and, worse, the internet, where all these exaggerations are laid out.
Nasser was not a fan of his son-in-law, and asked his daughter to divorce him. Marwan (the excellent Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari) overhears this, and shortly thereafter, while in London, calls the Israeli embassy to offer himself as a spy.
His motivation is unclear. The timing suggests it was a kind of payback for Nasser’s comments. There also is speculation that he wanted cash to fuel his penchant for gambling. But though he was only a low–level bureaucrat, he was one of the few members of the Nasser team to urge the Egyptian president not to go to war with Israel. So perhaps at least part of his initiative was altruistic.
But he never got through to the embassy intelligence staffer he wanted to reach. Shortly thereafter, Nasser dies and is replaced by Anwar Sadat (Sasson Gabay), who promotes him into a position of authority — ironically increasing his value to Israel.
Israeli intelligence taped Marwan’s initial call, and now that he was a position of greater importance, used that tape to insure his cooperation. Over the course of the next several years, he provides important info, often at great personal peril.
Sami Sharaf, a Nasser loyalist who led a failed coup against Sadat, suspects Marwan of spying and had Marwan followed — from his jail cell. Ashraf is almost caught red-handed passing classified information several times, adding moments of heart-beating tension to an already exciting film — without going overboard into Mission Literally Impossible territory.
Director Ariel Vromen smoothly moves the many pieces around with considerable elan. Until the end, that is, when he and screenwriter David Arata muddy the waters a bit.
Bar-Joseph’s book lends little credence to the rumors that Marwan was working both sides of the border. But speculation from the Egyptian side suggested he had, and in fact he is considered something of a hero there.
When Marwan warned Israel of the impending Yom Kippur invasion, he was not taken seriously, because two similar alerts in the months leading up to the invasion proved incorrect.
He’s shown telling Sadat to prepare Egyptian troops the way he’d done on the faux invasions. Israelis, he assured him, would think he was crying wolf. And while there was some precautionary mobilization in reaction to Marwan, the nation remained woefully unprepared.
Did Marwan set up Israel? Not clear from the film, and we will likely never know. Marwan dies under mysterious circumstances; he either fell or was thrown off a high balcony.
At the end, Vromen almost did the same thing to his film. But for the unclear conclusion, this was a film that deserved a smooth landing.