The end of the Cold War has been a terrible burden on filmmakers, removing the historically aggravating catalyst of Hollywood’s paranoid conspirators, the Communists (ignoring the fact that practically a quarter of the world’s population is controlled by Red China), and leaving in their wake the necessity of either inventing fantastic fictional organizations or madmen (thus, the rise of the superhero film with which comes the supervillain), global terrorism (which, so far, has proven an anathema at the American box-office) or a retreat back into the institutional paranoia of the 1970’s cinema (though without the gravitas of he era) with our own government, or more specifically the CIA taking the fall for most of the imagined ills of the world. Even recognized figures of evil, the Nazis, are diluted by becoming serio-comic bad guys in boy’s adventures such as the Indiana Jones series, or even Darth Vader in “Star Wars”, perhaps the most blatant use of the Nazi imagery for callously comic book-level villainy. With the passage of time- while the Nazi seems to be the yardstick by which all other historical models of inhumanity are measured -filmic representations are too often tamely rendered or the participants in clownishly exaggerated conspiratorial plots to resuscitate the Third Reich to world dominant stature, which makes the John Madden’s thriller, “The Debt” something of a breath of fresh air- to a point. This remake of the hauntingly moody Israeli film “Ha-Hov” (which has disgracefully yet to see a theatrical release in America), follows the basic plot of the original: depicting the story of a trio of Mossad agents- Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) -whose mission is to kidnap and return to Israel a Nazi war criminal for tribunal justice.
The film retains the dual timeline structure in which the audience both follows the 1965 mission and crisscrosses with a contemporary 1997 narrative in which the same characters, now decades older, are faced with the consequences of decisions made during the initial mission that led to a mythic falsification of its outcome. Given the nature of the story, the duality of the narrative structure affords the opportunity for two kinds of suspense. The earlier timeline presents a more straightforward thriller with undeniable psychological overtones- especially in the canny mind play between the captive Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), nicknamed “The Butcher of Birkenau”, with obvious allusions to the infamous Josef Mengele, and the trio of agents with whom he prods against their ingrained emotional points of sensitivity until an explosively violent reaction from one unwittingly sets the stage for the mission to disastrously unravel, leading to the criminal’s escape and the wrenching decision of the trio to conceal his flight- presuming he’ll never resurface from his fugitive status -and manufacture a story in which Rachel kills him during his escape attempt. Conversely, the “modern” section (with Rachel, David and Stefan now played by Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson), finds the propulsive rhythm of the film significantly modulated to reflect a greater focus on the more nuanced nature of an almost meditative consideration of the the moral ramifications from the earlier mission’s opaque decisions of desperation, made necessary by two coincidental (and therefore suspect in regards to credibility) occurrences: the publication of Rachel’s daughter’s book recounting the fateful mission, and the disturbingly sudden resurfacing of Vogel in the Ukraine; the latter calling for either the members of the mission team to come clean and
Madden’s version of the story arrives with a host of disadvantages in comparison to director Assaf Bernstein’s original, not the least with the 2007 version being a product of the Israeli film industry, featuring an authentic Israeli cast (including the incomparable Gila Almagor) as opposed to an international assemblage which cannot help but add a layer of unnecessary, distracting artifice to a story in which empathetical immersion in the complex philosophical quandaries particular to historically traumatic gestation of the Israeli national psyche- not the least of which is the antagonism between the sustaining of one’s personal moral code and that of devotion to national duty -are explored in the guise of a thriller, though in Madden’s incarnation the concessions to commercialization tend to undermine the richer complexities of the tidal pull of imponderable anxieties inherent in the Mossad threesome, especially in the destructive conviction that mission failure will equal national disgrace. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the psychically adaptive power of time and experience in which the effects of a brief abandonment of a mental discipline may later reveal itself as a failing of youthful uncertainty which becomes the transformative fulcrum of that person’s emergent character. Again, this point is obscured in the screenplay by changing the author of the book relating the mission- the publication of which magnifies the need for expedient decision making in either continuing to cover their deception or facing the consequences of finally coming clean -from the original film’s Rachel to the current film’s Rachel’s offspring, necessitating an unnecessary dilution of the central moral core of the film by offering motivations of maternal protection rather than the psychologically corrosive effect of prolonged guilt. Thus the central conflict within Rachel, whether or not to actuate a final solution (if you will pardon the expression) finds the film maker’s apprehensive that the original’s important theme of personal morality tainted by perceived national interests will be less sympathetically accepted than a thematic hook as banal as motherly love.
John Madden’s direction is efficient craftsmanship which makes for a serviceable commercial thriller, and that’s all; a missed opportunity for a film that could have used the espionage trappings for a far deeper exploration of the nature of the persecution of history and the inevitability of caustic, self-destructive psychic wounding. Curiously, Madden’s cast falters from unexpected directions, with such presumably dependable thespians as Helen Mirren evidently finding no persuasive core of reference in which she might make her character either interesting nor worthy of empathy as a character ensnared in a moral dead-end: it’s a surprisingly limp, one-note, uncharacteristically sleepy performance. On the other hand, Tom Wilkinson exudes duplicity as a broken tanker leaks an oily discharge: slick and unpleasant. On a more positive note, American Jessica Chastain, Australian Sam Worthington and New Zealander Marton Csokas are energetic and engaging as the junior version of the Mossad trio, though only Csokas is remotely convincing as an Israeli, and Chastain is hampered by the unrealistic expectation of convincingly appearing as a younger version of Mirren whom she scarcely resembles.
However, it is Danish Jesper Christensen who fares best as the wily Vogel, a formidably enemy who is unnervingly instinctive as to the points of fragility that will undo the unraveling psyches of the young agents whose fear of national disgrace is as palpable as that of fatality. His is a character and performance deserving of a far better film; ironically, one that had already been produced and needlessly remade in this glossier but far less effective version.