How is justice attained properly from someone whose evil is immeasurable? This question, like many posed in The Debt, subjectively tries to pinpoint a moral restitution for certain unspeakable atrocities. The film attacks this blurry premise with a gritty ebb and flow, a suspenseful web of conflict and ethical dilemma whose darkness gets illuminated by special individual performances.
In charge of coherently putting these pieces together is director John Madden who creates a cinematic spectacle on-screen. Along with his team of writers, they remake a 2007 Israeli film but add a few layers this time. It spins an espionage thriller into the throes of a compromising love triangle while tampering with realities of truth and their timely consequences.
The film begins in Tel Aviv in 1997 where a congratulatory book release party is being held. The book tells the tale of three Mossad agents who went undercover in 1966 East Berlin to kidnap Dieter Vogel, a Nazi doctor who inhumanly performed monstrous medical experiments on the Jewish population during World War II. The undercover trio consists of a young woman Rachel Singer, her hard-nosed admirer David Peretz, and leader of the group Stephan Gold played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas, respectively. Rachel’s older self is played by Helen Mirren who mothers the book’s author, her thirty-year-old daughter Sarah, who heroically categorizes the agents’ mission. Sarah’s father is the older Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and though he is not married to Rachel, is still a member of the Mossad. Unable to make the current reception is David (Ciarán Hinds), whose absence is illustriously explained throughout the past and late-nineties present.
The narration seamlessly fluctuates between Cold War Germany and present Israel, retelling the trio’s mission and experiences while combatting the agents’ future predicaments. The former covert mission pits the three into a small, leaky apartment, the operating grounds for which to plan the kidnap that must be initiated by a young Rachel. She visits the gynecologist, now the guise for the evil Vogel, and courageously poses as an inconceivable wife to execute their plan.
The action predictably begins to crescendo as does their emotional and ideological distances. The all or nothing operation creates a strain between Rachel and David’s love kindling and more blatantly between he and Stephan’s outlook on their covert jobs. The kidnapped Vogel’s sadistic mannerisms create a boiling chemistry of tension that when cut is spewed through each performance. Jessica Chastain, who has broken out this summer, spews a fight and fervor through her nervously brave demeanor. Her pale features illuminate her pure face (soon to be scarred as seen through her older, wrinkled cheek), caring and gentle but with an ability to kill. Worthington demonstrates his acting ability this time against real people, not Navi or Robots, and connects. His ideological persistence and dedication creates a pounding presence, providing vulnerability in his strong-minded desire for Vogel’s public humiliation. Jesper Christensen‘s manipulating presence as Dieter Vogel is also spellbinding, his words inciting inter group conflict that feeds fire to his captors’ abrasive qualities in duress.
The young and old duo of Chastain and Mirren, though lacking a similar semblance, characteristically creates continuity. Mirren stylistically continues the emotional arc of Rachel’s inner turmoil. Her strong-willed exterior masks her foreboding detached self. The book shares glory, but its authenticity ominously begins to creep away. Madden becomes masterful in his approach, toggling between old and former selves with innovative editing and resourceful uses of sound and suspense. Lingering tones from the score bleed the anxiety into the next scene, keeping the gritty nature of secrecy even in sun soaked settings.
In the book and now upcoming movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics tells his colleagues about his refusal to actually watch the games his team plays. Putting passion into the stresses of nine innings tends to create a partial view of his players. For Beane, the best way to handle business is by taking emotion out of the equation. The Mossad agents lack this despondent yet sometimes favorable quality within their mission. The little machinations each character possesses in Berlin begin a butterfly effect, emotion-filled decisions that overcome biased barriers and infiltrate the systematic details of a plan that should be devoid of subjectivity. Madden translates these mistakes into their eventual elder state, credited and guilted into holding back their first-hand knowledge of a foiled operation.
The realism in each character’s decisions creates a dark but forgiving tone. Stephan tells Rachel under stress that sometimes the truth is a luxury, that it creates another set of problems ready to unfold at a moment’s notice. The moral ambiguity is almost overplayed, but it tries to answer its posed questions profoundly. Belief or truth? Madden crisply attacks this slight difference ending with Mirren’s Rachel, a woman still haunted by her past with enough hunger to liberate herself, one way or another.
- ‘The Debt’: History’s Burden, And A Moral Calculus (npr.org)
- Review: The Debt (canada.com)