Monday, October 10, 2011

THE DEBT - A Thriller With Depth

THE DEBT Review:

- The Debt is fictional, but it's a credit to the caliber of the writing and acting that it feels like a very real piece of historical fact. But even if the specific plotline of the film is made up, there is a very tangible element of Truth in this movie - in its characters, themes, and existential narrative. It picks up on a throughline that's been explored in some great films, like Steven Spielberg's Munich - the idea that, following the Holocaust, the Jewish people recreated themselves into a hard-edged nation, a nation determined to never again be victims to would-be oppressors. In doing so, there was a certain loss of innocence that accompanied Israel's aggressive defensive tactics. And that is what The Debt skillfully explores - a people still coming to grips with the mental scars inflicted on them by the Nazis, and still trying to figure out what sort of response that pain demanded.

The Debt is a great little film, packed to the brim with an all-star cast, and a gripping, taut pace. Though it deals with a lot of big, existential questions, the movie works perfectly well as a tension-packed international thriller. And the story is a good one. The film cuts between two principle time periods - 1997, and 1966. In 1997, we meet middle-aged Rachel Singer, a retired Mossad agent and a hero of sorts. Her daughter has recently written a book chronicling her adventures in the 60's, during which Rachel bravely helped to capture and kill the notorious Dieter Vogel, "The Surgeon of Birkeanu." Vogul was a Nazi doctor known for his inhumane medical experiments on captured Jews - including children - during WWII. After the war, he fled capture, masked his identity, and lived as a doctor - a gynocologist, no less - in Berlin. Rachel was part of a team of covert Mossad agents that went undercover in Germany to track down Vogel and bring him to Israel, to be tried as a war criminal. In 1997, the public has long believed that the operation was an iron-clad success, that Vogel was captured and killed when he resisted against the Mossad agents. But as the film flashes back to 1966, the year of the operation, we learn that things unfolded in a much messier and more complex fashion than the public was later led to believe. As the truth about the 1966 operation comes to light in 1997, Rachel must reunite her old team to finally put to rest their now-30-year-old mission.

The two-tiered narrative structure of The Debt means that we get young and old versions of our three principle leads, and in that group are a number of outstanding actors. The biggest standout is likely the pairing of Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren as the younger and older versions of Rachel Singer respectively. Chastain seemingly came out of nowhere this year to become Hollywood's defacto leading lady, but it's hard to find fault with that when she's been so good in everything she's been in. In The Debt, Chastain may just have her greatest film role to date - as Rachel, she's at times sullen, at times driven, but always possessing of an unflinching inner strength. Some of The Debt's strongest scenes take place when Chastain, posing as a German housewife, must visit the incognito Dr. Vogul as his gynocology patient. You can't help but squirm as you see Rachel placing herself in such a vulnerable position before such a terrifying man as Vogel. But when Rachel's big moment of action and vengeance finally comes, it's pretty darn badass - and a lot of that can be chalked up to Chastain's quiet intensity. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren has made a second career out of playing older women who still have a bit of mojo, and she plays the role quite well here. But Mirren isn't playing a cartoon character like she did in, say, Red. Here she's realistic and believable as a woman who's been out of the espionage game for a long time, who's now more brittle and more vulnerable, but who might still have a trick or two up her sleeve. Mirren also does a great job showing the older Rachel's guilt and inner conflict. Here is a woman who's been canonized as a national hero, but under false pretenses. Mirren does a fantastic job of showing Rachel's turmoil.

Rachel's two fellow Mossad agents, David and Stephan, are played with a lot of character by Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. Worthington has gotten a bad rap before, but he really impressed me as David - a man whose entire family was killed in the concentration camps and who is now singlemindedly pursuing Vogel and other escaped Nazis. Stephan, as played by Csokas, is the cocky leader of the squad who is the most ambitious of the three. He sees the Vogel mission as his means to fame and fortune and a career in politics. His older self, as played by the great Tom Wilkinson, is similarly cagey and crafty - the man who wants the secrets of the 1966 mission kept as such no matter what. Meanwhile, it is the older version of David who's been unable to live with the truth, and it is his return to Israel, after years of globe-trotting and Nazi-hunting, that re-opens this long-thought-closed case.

Overall, even if the resemblances are somewhat minimal, there is a nice dichotomy and symmetry between the older and younger actors. That said, I did feel that there was a clear weak link, and that was CiarĂ¡n Hinds as the older David. Bearing almost zero resemblance to Worthington, Hinds' presence just feels off when he enters the picture, and his total dissimilarity to Worthington's version of David is a big distraction in the latter part of the film.

However, one other actor worth noting is Jesper Christensen as Vogel. He makes the Nazi doctor absolutely creepy and, at times, downright terrifying. Christensen has some crackling scenes with Chastain, Worthington, and Mirren, and he is just a great, memorable villain - a powerful reminder of the sheer evil and darkness inherent in the Nazi philosophy - manifesting most powerfully in their unbridled hatred of the Jewish people.

The Debt has a great mix of strong character moments and espionage action and intrigue. It's got a taut, intelligent script by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (yep, the same Matthew Vaughn who directed Kick-Ass and Stardust), and moody, tension-packed direction by John Madden (not he of football fame). I do think that the back-and-forth time jumps between 1966 and 1997 are occasionally a bit confusing and disorienting, and I wondered a bit if the film would have been more effective if the narrative was slightly more straightforward. Overall though, I found it fascinating to see the way in which the events of World War II reverberated so strongly throughout the decades, and how Israel, Mossad, and the Jewish people continued, for so long, to live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Just as Spielberg's Munich drew a shocking throughline from the terrorism of the 70's to the terrorism of today, The Debt draws an even longer arrow from World War II, to the 60's, to the 90's, and then even to today. Kids today may think of The Holocaust as ancient history, but The Debt reminds us just how recent it really was, and just how continuous its echoes remained. If you're just looking for a good espionage thriller, I'd say there's a lot to like about THE DEBT. But if you have an interest in the modern history of Israel, or in international politics in the wake of World War II, I'd say that The Debt is a fascinating and must-see look at some of the core existential forces that have shaped the modern world. I'd urge you to check it out.

My Grade: A-

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