Review: The Debt

The best spies usually work alone. There’s a reason James Bond and Jason Bourne fly solo, which is generally assumed to be that it lessens the margin for error and prevents emotional attachments. Perhaps it’s really because the we like to uncover the dark secrets that make a ruthless assassins tick, which isn’t too much of a challenge to a screenwriter — when there’s only one spy. In “The Debt,” we have three former Israeli Mossad agents who were hailed as heroes in 1966 after salvaging a near-lost mission to capture a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin and bring him to trial in Israel. That makes for three heads we yearn to crack, not to mention the consequent relationship tension resulting from a little something we don’t yet know. 

For a plot that has a lot of stories to juggle (individual character stories on top of the rehashing of the events in East Berlin), “The Debt” rests in good hands. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have written some excellent scripts in “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class,” and despite the various challenges and a few painfully slow moments (some of which you could argue had a point to being that way), they and Peter Straughan manage a narrative with evenly spread tension points. No doubt much of that credit belongs to veteran director John Madden. Every scene packs an unspoken element of tension whether pure suspense, inner monologue or even romantic tension.

Rachel, Stephan and David were all agents on the mission that resulted in the death of “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” In 1997, Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan’s (Tom Wilkinson) daughter Sarah has published a book of their heroism, but that very day, David (Ciarán Hinds) commits suicide. Immediately we come to realize something’s amiss and from there the film tells of the events in East Berlin.

For the most part, this is Rachel’s story. In 1966 East Berlin she’s played by Jessica Chastain, who takes advantage of the amount of screen time and steals the show. If there’s a right way to communicate what it’s like to be spying on an infamous Nazi surgeon who performed horrific experiments while having him examine you in stirrups on multiple occasions, she found it.

Rachel is also at the center of an understated love triangle that feels a bit heavy-handed when it rises to the foreground. Nevertheless, the actors do well with what they’re given. Romance aside, Marton Csokas gives young Stephan the Type-A personality he requires while Worthington meddles in the shadows as a more introverted young David. Worthington shows he’s far better suited for more external characters, but to be fair the only truly bad thing about his performance is his Israeli accent. In fact, the accent thing across the board was kind of rough.

When the three finally capture the infamous Dieter Vogel, the film moves in an odd direction. The script gives the doctor too many chances to open his mouth and say obnoxious and horribly anti-Semitic things, all of which seem to waste time and just make the audience and the characters angry — a dangerous emotion at the movies. If not for leading up to a seriously effective reveal/twist, it would have marred the entire film. Instead, the story continues another half hour longer than expected with a slow but mostly pertinent dragging out of the conclusion and the film’s thematic questions. Undoubtedly, some viewers will find the script’s anger-inducing elements drive them beyond the point of enjoyment, though by the end the filmmakers justify everything.

“The Debt” asks some questions of those we call heroes and effectively examines the importance of truth, but the road there requires bounding over some romantic obstacles and some serious junctures where the point almost feels entirely lost. The more we know about the story, the clearer the picture comes together, but it takes awhile to arrive there. Like a good puzzle, the most satisfying thrillers come together at an even grind with a couple bumps and twists. “The Debt” compares more to the kind that comes together all at once after much laboring when you finally uncover the key that justifies it all. Both end satisfactorily, but the latter makes you wonder if it was worth it for the moments of great frustration.

3.5/5 Stars

The Debt
Directed by John Madden
Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum (Israeli film “Ha-Hov”)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Helen Mirren


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