THE DEBT B
USA (114 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: John Madden
The truth is whatever we say it is. —Stephan (Marton Csokas)
This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—Reporter from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
This is another one of those paranoid Cold War espionage thrillers that were the rage of the 1970’s with Alan Pakula’s KLUTE (1971) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or the recently deceased Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), each one a tense, well acted, and highly suspenseful drama with dark political undertones marked by the cool exteriors of sterile architecture, featuring plenty of empty space, and a near mathematical structure on which the story rests. This film is also well served by such an extraordinary cast and a director who knows what he’s doing behind the camera, shifting all the pieces around like a chess board, re-enacting history through a kind of morality chamber drama, much like Roman Polanski’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994). This is actually a remake of a previously released Israeli feature by Assaf Bernstein, known by its Hebrew title HA HOV (The Debt) (2007), where in the 1960’s a group of three young Mossad agents are sent behind enemy lines into East Germany to kidnap a Nazi war criminal known as the Butcher of Birkenau and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. This fictionalized tale is based on the horrific medical procedures of Josef Mengele, a German SS officer who performed grisly medical experiments on the concentration camp inmates, particularly young women, such as sterilization, shock treatments, limb amputations or injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, leaving them blind, where many died afterwards from untreated infections. In real life, Mengele was hunted by the Mossad in the 60’s, but he evaded capture and died a free man in exile at the age of 67 in Bertioga, Brazil. While adapted by three new screenwriters, it retains the original flashback structure, but it lacks a certain emotional urgency, not in the heart racing action sequences which are superb, but in the spare portrait of the characters whose real life personas are never fleshed out, where there’s never a sense that the audience is connecting with any of them, turning this into a kind of spy caper or a super hero Mission Impossible episode.
At her daughter’s grand book opening celebrating her life by revealing the harrowing details of the historic mission, Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer is being lauded for her heroic work as an Israeli agent 35 years ago, but that concerned look on her face suggests she’s uncomfortable with all the attention. Quickly flashing back to when she is played by young actress Jessica Chastain, we see the mission has gone terribly wrong, where the captured prisoner manages to escape by surprising his kidnapper and beating Rachel into a bloody pulp on the floor before making his way down a winding staircase, but somehow she summons the strength to crawl to the top of the stairs and shoot him before he could get away. The book is a huge success, but the lives of the three remain in turmoil, remaining secretive and distant, where a disfiguring scar on Rachel’s cheek from a succession of kicks to her jaw is a daily reminder of this incident. The Hollywood aspect to this story when told in flashback is adding a romanticized love triangle to the mission, which despite the taut suspense of the precision of their operation adds an element of pure soap opera melodrama. It’s hard to believe that secret agents actually have time for hanky panky, as one would suspect they need to eliminate distractions and focus on the business at hand. As it turns out, that’s exactly the view of one of the agents, David (Sam Worthington), but not shared by the commanding officer Stephan (Marton Csokas). This not only turns into a distraction but becomes a fatal flaw due to the intricate nature of what they need to do, which is kidnap a still practicing (under an alias) Doctor Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) after a series of routine fertility exams from Rachel as a pretend patient confirm he’s their suspect.
Madden displays a deft hand in the action sequences, where each phase slowly unfolds with surgical precision, where the underlying tension, especially well drawn out during the visits when Rachel allows herself to be examined by a man she knows is a vile monster, couldn’t be more discomforting and creepy. It’s all drenched in an eerie, completely detached calmness, shown with the cool veneer of excessive restraint, creating at times a dark, atmospheric mood of stillness that borders on horror. Christiansen is chilling in his role as a Nazi-spewing Jew hater, which he uses against his captors every chance he gets. Despite their meticulous planning, things go awry, and Vogel quickly realizes just how exposed and vulnerable his kidnappers have become, continually bickering among themselves about what to do. The bumbling aspect of this Mossad crew is a bit unsettling, as instead of maintaining their hard corps discipline, as this is the elite of the elite, they lapse into moments of psychological weakness which their captive easily exploits. Even with the elements of the narrative that one might find implausible, the choreography of the sequences moving back and forth in time is excellent, where the harrowing aspects of the kidnapping itself is a sheer delight and outweigh the misguided personal intimacies that evolve. But a morality play is perhaps best expressed in the breaking down of trust and loyalty, where the bonds that hold relationships and even societies together may be shaken by the very root of their own unstable foundations, undermined by human miscalculations. Rachel Singer is a complex figure, beautifully portrayed by both Chastain and Mirren, drawn by the opposing strengths offered by both David and Stephan, leaving her conflicted and perhaps even exiled from her own conscience, instead making an unholy alliance with history, where myth is always more captivating than the facts.