The Debt Dir. John Madden

[Focus Features; 2011]

Styles: spy, revenge, thriller
Others: Munich, Walk on Water, Shakespeare in Love

The Debt: an excellent spy-thriller masking a story about Holocaust survivors out for revenge, or an excellent spy-thriller masking a story exploiting Holocaust survivors taking justified revenge? Now, I won’t lie. It can be tough to separate the quality filmmaking from the message behind this movie. That’s a testament to the skill of director John Madden and each of the seven leads, who direct and/or play to perfection. But there is a heavy strain of obfuscation in this movie: it feels great for a short time but leaves a sour aftertaste, like a cup of hot coffee just on the edge of turning to acidic black sludge.

One of the nastiest twists, in a plot that will reveal quite a few, introduces the movie’s Josef Mengele stand-in, a Nazi doctor dubbed the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), as a grandfatherly gynecologist whiling away his golden years in 1960s East Berlin. Somehow or another, Mossad, the real-life Israeli intelligence agency, has been tipped off about the Surgeon’s whereabouts, and they’ve smuggled in a trio of agents — Rachel (Jessica Chastain, delicate and tense), David (Sam Worthington, implacable and damaged), and Stephan (Martin Czokas, caddish and careerist) — to root him out. The three hunker down in a Tarkovskyan safehouse — leaking water-as-a-metaphor from every nook and cranny — and work out an operation to capture the Surgeon that puts James Bond’s brutish methods to shame.

Things go awry, as they are wont to do in movies about the moral muddle of illegal (spy) justice. Just before and just after they do, The Debt is a smashingly good espionage flick, so delicate, detailed, and satisfying you may be telling yourself you’re in the midst of greatness. Chastain and Worthington, in particular, play the kinds of spies who are not hard to imagine actually existing, ones only barely masking their fear of the horrendous, life-threatening situations that their work puts them in. When confronted with the Surgeon, who plays pitch-perfect mind games with his Jewish captors, they evince the kind of bottled rage that I remember seeing in the soldiers trapped behind Taliban lines in the documentary Restrepo.

But surrounding the young agents and their 1960s operation is a much broader story involving the retired spies regrouping in 1997 to deal with the historical shockwave of the Surgeon’s capture. The moral twists are delivered in these sections, and though it might not be obvious, they weigh the movie down.

Madden’s deft hand with camerawork and editing never leadens. The elder spies are played by the best actors money can buy: Helen Mirren (Chastain plus 30 years), Ciaran Hinds (Worthington), and Tom Wilkinson (Czokas) are believable not only as Israelis, but as living extensions of their 30s-ish counterparts. In fact, nobody specifically trips up the execution of The Debt; it’s just that the movie wears a clean, elegant mask to hide a bald-faced hollowness.

Is it a brave statement to make a movie about the pitfalls of revenge? Possibly, but it gets tricky when you’re invoking that perennial plot motivator, the Holocaust. No film wants to get caught telling Israel it sunk itself into the muck hunting down Nazis. It’s much easier to let audiences share in the cinematic catharsis of Jews whomping on Nazis. The Debt is caught in between. Because its agents go through some dark personal revelations when confronted with their captive, The Debt seems to castigate Mossad for lowering itself to the level of its people’s exterminators. But it won’t do to tell one of the most victimized groups of the 20th century that they took the wrong path to justice. So the spies, in their old age, will right what went wrong back in the 1960s, and presumably all was worth it.

Defiance and Inglourious Basterds, on the opposite end of the Jewish Revenge Film spectrum, perhaps more honestly reveled in Nazi-bloodletting. Their messages were simple: You people want to see violence done to the Nazis, right? Well here you go, dig in. The Debt and its brethren (Munich) want you to ponder a bit on the damage Israel has done to itself in its well-funded quest for revenge, and then let you share in the spoils of it anyway.

Most Read