Suspense, Historical Backdrop Bolster 'The Debt'

Directed by: John Madden, Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: B

Fueled by one of the stronger motivations that could occupy a historical/political thriller, John Madden's The Debt is about the capture of a Nazi war criminal -- an experimental doctor -- for the purpose of holding a trial in Israel for his actions. Three hand-selected operatives orchestrate a cloak-and-dagger mission and, afterward, keep him detained, fed, and clean while their home country prepares for their arrival. That's just the first half of the story; the second explores the operatives' elder years, where they've harbored and lamented the truth of what really happened during his imprisonment. It sounds disheartening, blatantly so, and it might have been had Madden chose to stress historical mourning too heavily. But the Shakespeare in Love director creates a shrewd and skillful espionage thriller that uses reparation, justice, and ultimately retribution for the acts of World War II as enthralling drivers instead of pushy mediums for rumination, punctuated by historical magnitude instead of directly driven by it.

Remade from an Israeli production by the Stardust/Kick-Ass writer duo of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, as well as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Peter Straughan, Madden's film first centers on a modern point in 1997, where the daughter of former Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) -- the youngest and only female among the operation's spies -- has written a book about the events that occurred in mid-'60s Berlin. You'd think that having a mother who took part in the capture would be quite a resource. And she is, but only to an extent; she and her two cohorts haven't been forthright with what truly happened, skirting around a few major details. As Rachel reads a passage from her daughter's book and we're shown the way the event is depicted as the Israeli people understand it, haunted pain clearly stirs in her eyes. Some probably interpret it as the aftereffects of going through the ordeal, still leaving her troubled and pensive to this day, but soon we learn it's because things aren't as they seem.

The Debt indulges our curiosity as it shifts back to Berlin in the early-'60s to recollect the full breadth of the mission's developments, clarifying how a well-trained but green Rachel Singer (filled with barefaced composure by Jessica Chastain) poses as an infertile wife to entrap the doctor-turned-gynecologist, Dieter Vogel, with the aid of her two partners -- Stefan (Marton Csokas), the roguish piano-playing leader, and David (San Worthington), the young closed-off warrior. Director Madden navigates the standard spy build-up with a dutiful cinematic perspective, painting a tidy picture of the operatives' personality types as they orchestrate their mission: how they spar in their weathered apartment, the nervousness that stirs while surveying their target, and rigidly getting to know one another as they await the green light to execute their plan. They're all patriots of different stripes and different motivations, and we're moderately drawn into the dynamic they strike in the walls of the East Berlin apartment.

But this film isn't built to meticulously explore the characters' profundity and why they've signed on for the mission, instead less-ambitiously concerned with the anticipation behind seeing how these patriots -- with a motivation that speaks for itself -- capture the war criminal and keep him detained. Some might look at The Debt's somewhat single-minded thrust as a limitation on its historical and thematic strength, and they're not wrong, but when the suspense captures an electric vintage atmosphere and edginess that's as effective as what Madden's constructed, it's reasonably justifiable. A blur of cloak-and-dagger tactics propels the lengthy stream of events, from the culmination of physical training and the exaction of a clever plan to some on-the-fly thinking during an escape, and it's thoroughly exhilarating while meeting the limited demands set for it. And once we relive the last moments of the espionage mission as they really happened, occurring beat-for-beat in the way it's originally depicted but with a different outcome, it discovers a swell of import that does, in due course, tie to historical consequence.

Don't get me wrong: The Debt does unearth some muffled soul-searching and examination within the story's central flashback, which becomes a driving force once Madden brings us back to the modern era ... and bridges the gap between the two without neglecting a suspenseful beat. When the aged, scarred Rachel comes out of retirement (somewhat by force) to smooth the wrinkles caused by the threat of their secret surfacing to their nation -- requiring her to breathlessly weave and hide in an office, fast-talk her way into buildings, and unsheathe a needled syringe -- the substance seems tailor-made to conduct the flow of suspense, while Helen Mirren captivatingly handles a distressed incarnation of the green Mossad agent we once experience. Yet, it's mostly a means to an end, the drama pigeonholing itself into mere explanations of the motivations behind decisions made in the growingly byzantine thrills, without much cathartic follow-through to the limited emotionality it introduces. This isn't powerful filmmaking; however, it is effectively thrilling against the backdrop of poignant historical circumstance.

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