Mossad agents see that debt is paid
An average thriller elevated by casting choices, this is actually a remake of a 2007 Israeli movie “Ha-Hov, meaning “the debt.” Putting the pieces together differently might have made for a more interesting movie, but director John Madden tells a solid story with the same basic elements, although the younger counterparts have the better story than their older selves.
The story begins in 1997 as three former Mossad agents are being recognized with a book about their experience in a long ago mission they carried out to capture a Nazi war criminal. It’s clear that Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciaran Hinds) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) have a secret and flashbacks reveal what actually happened — a terrible truth they have sworn never to speak about.
The young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csonkas) are sent to East Berlin in 1967 to bring back Vogel (Jesper Christensen), infamously known as the “Surgeon of Burkenau,” a Joseph Mengele-type doctor who carried out unspeakable atrocities and is now a kindly old gynecologist practicing in the communist city.
The trick, as the three plot out their mission, is not capturing Vogel but to get him out of city. The plan must go off with precision timing, with no room for error. But something does go wrong, leading to the most suspenseful sequence of the film. Now the three agents are stuck with the kidnapped Vogel secreted in their apartment while the Berlin police are searching house to house for the missing doctor.
What actually happens to Vogel is revealed too early and what was a thrill ride of a first half ends up dragging into the second hour as the elder Rachel and Stefan try to tie up loose ends from a long ago mistake and decades of covering it up. Sustaining the big reveal would have enhanced the story, but Madden chooses a more linear approach to the flashbacks and subsequent action.
The casting of the younger and older counterparts is perfectly believable with Chastain (last seen in “The Help”) and Worthington establishing the sexual tension between the two characters that leads to a lover’s triangle, in a somewhat unbelievable story turn.
In the present day, the story belongs to Mirren, who carries the heaviest burden of the trio’s big lie and is ultimately the only one who can fix it.Anyone who has seen Spielberg’s “Munich” will understand the dedication and drive of the Mossad in bringing war criminals to justice. This could well be a companion piece to that film. At least two of these agents — Rachel and David — are Holocaust survivors and the queasiest moments in this movie come as Rachel must submit to a gynecological exam performed by Vogel in order to gain his trust.
As for Vogel, there is no nuance in Christensen’s interpretation. He’s a two-bit mad doctor who exudes malevolence. Once exposed, he’s just an evil monster, without pity, but not on par with, say, Laurence Olivier’s Nazi doctor in “Marathon Man.” I longed to hear him hiss just once, “Is it safe?”
Sets and scenes capture ’60s Eastern Europe with period detail. Harsh lighting, while unflattering to some of the actors, does provide a certain realism, telegraphing the gravitas of the theme. All in all, “The Debt” is a good film. To be a great one would have required more creative editing choices.