Review: With ‘False Flag,’ Israel Exports Another Fine Thriller

Posted January 11, 2018 7:27 p.m. EST

“Kfulim” is an Israeli conspiracy-thriller television series whose Hebrew title translates as “duplicates” or “doubles.” Its first season comes to Hulu on Friday, and its new English title — “False Flag” — is even more of a spoiler than the original.

The show plunges into action, with breathless TV reports that five Israeli citizens, presumably undercover Mossad agents, have been caught on video kidnapping an Iranian government minister from his Moscow hotel room. The suspects — including a chemist, a preschool teacher and a bride on her wedding day — watch the fuzzy footage in disbelief and insist they weren’t in Russia and have no idea what’s going on.

The English title points to the truth that the plot dances with briefly but fairly quickly gives up: The five (or most of them, anyway) are indeed being framed. The show’s salient questions, answered over eight fast-paced, highly entertaining episodes, are by whom and for what purpose?

This setup would have been obvious to Middle Eastern audiences familiar with the real incident that inspired the series: the 2010 assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by a team using fake passports.

“False Flag,” created by Maria Feldman and Amit Cohen and written by Cohen, takes that scenario and fully exploits its melodramatic possibilities. The five may not be guilty of kidnapping but they’re all guilty of something — an affair, a hidden criminal past, an insatiable appetite for attention — that complicates their attempts to prove their innocence and provides the show with five mysteries for the price of one.

Cohen and the director, Oded Ruskin, keep the story’s soap-operatic tendencies and spy-genre implausibilities in check while putting together the kind of solid psychological action thriller that Israeli TV regularly provides. “False Flag” comes on the heels of the excellent “Fauda” on Netflix, and the casting of Ishai Golan as the bewildered chemist, Ben, is a link to the granddaddy of the genre, the great “Prisoners of War” (adapted in the United States as “Homeland”). Golan’s nervous affect works as well for Ben as it did for the shaky POW Uri.

Like those predecessors, “False Flag” is less fancy and more naturalistic than its American counterparts, with a dry humor and a low-key efficiency in generating suspense. The tension is maintained through constant movement and the clash of personalities rather than bloodshed — there’s violence, but the body count is lower than it would be in an American series, at least until an awkwardly handled shootout in the finale. (That scene is part of the heavy-handed setup for a second season that hasn’t yet been made; the first season ran in Israel in 2015.)

As for the story, the United States doesn’t figure at all, except for one throwaway line that answers an obvious question and sums up a worldview. “The kidnappers did a clean job,” a Mossad operative says. “It wasn’t the Americans.”