Precisely one fact is known for certain about Ashraf Marwan’s once-secret life. The son-in-law to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and close aid to his successor, Anwar Sadat, spied for Israel in the lead up to 1973’s Yom Kippur War, and provided warning of the imminent Arab attack. Everything else about Marwan’s clandestine activities is unconfirmable; falsehoods at worst and rumors at best.
Zvi Zamir, the Mossad director during the Yom Kippur war, called him “the best source we have ever had.” Simultaneously, Egypt claims he was a double agent, feeding Israeli intelligence exactly what Sadat wanted them to think. After his mysterious death from a balcony fall in 2007, Marwan received a hero’s funeral from his homeland but was eulogized in Israel as well.
Marwan’s story is recounted as an epic espionage thriller in the Netflix Original film The Angel, titled after his Mossad code name. On the whole, the movie functions as an entertaining history lesson, with the opening narration explaining the preceding Six-Day War, and the lasting effects of Israel retaking the Sinai Peninsula. Director Ariel Vromen does a stellar job fleshing out both sides of the conflict and keeping things accurate. While more time is spent with the Egyptian characters, like Sadat (Sasson Gabai of The Band’s Visit) and of course Marwan (played suavely by Marwan Kenzari), the Israeli characters like Mossad agent Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell) are given ample time to gain sympathy for their struggles.
The movie only falters when exploring its lead character. Due to the ambiguous nature of Marwan’s exploits, director Ariel Vromen attempts to skirt around the little knowledge we have of the man, leading to unsatisfactory results.
Sometimes, like in all entertainment mediums, the truth can be twisted for dramatic dialogue or action sequences. Here, Vromen takes plenty of liberties, and rightfully so; Simply snatching files off a desk for two hours would put any viewer to sleep. The most memorable moment in the movie follows Marwan sabotaging a Palestinian terrorist attack on an El-Al plane by removing a piece of the missiles he provided. Something of the sort might have happened, but definitely not as portrayed cinematically. Similarly, there’s no evidence Marwan engaged in extramarital affairs, yet this is the basis for a prominent story line.
Marwan’s murky motivations are another blank space for the writers to fill with their own vision. While steering clear of the double-agent route, The Angel paints its protagonist as having purely selfish intentions at first. His powerful father-in-law does not respect him and he seeks revenge. Later we see Marwan grapple with his gambling addiction – perhaps money was the most significant factor in him contacting the Mossad? Is it his power-grabbing personality—the same trait that earns Sadat’s trust and respect?
Then, there’s a jarring shift in the final scenes, when Marwan lays bare his true feelings: He’ll do anything for peace! He just wants to avoid war and conflict at any cost. The filmmakers go so far as to connect Marwan’s exploits to the eventual 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It’s a poor storytelling decision since the film gives us no reason to believe that the philandering, gambler we’ve been watching would do anything so high minded and selfless. Truth is, we have no idea what was going through this enigma’s mind and never will, but the filmmaker’s job is to make us believe and here, ultimately, the portrayal of Marwan falters.
Elazar Abrahams is a former intern at Tablet, and will attend Yeshiva University after a gap year at Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem.