'The Debt' Doesn't Quite Pay Off
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
What is the line between justice and vengeance? What's the exact burden of guilt when that line is crossed? When does righteousness, and particularly self-righteousness, get in the way of doing what's actually right? These questions were explored pretty trenchantly, at least by this reviewer's lights, in Steven Spielberg's 2005 film "Munich," in which crack Israeli intelligence operatives tracked down and wiped out the parties behind the massacre of athletes at the 1972 Olympics. And Mossad, and undercover operations, also lie at the heart of "The Debt," a new film from director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") that explores the same questions. This fictional tale aspires to pack a big sting, and it works to an extent, but as a whole the picture is too overdetermined and melodramatic and sentimental in spite of itself to put its ideas and convictions across as powerfully as it would like.
Some are going to refer to this, I suspect, as a self-hating Mossad picture. In fact, "The Debt" is adapted from a bona fide Israeli source, 2007's "Ha-Hov," a film I'm actually kind of interested in seeing now, as fare such as "Waltz With Bashir" has convinced me that homegrown Israeli films are better at self-excoriation -- wittier, more genuinely engaged and provocative -- than Anglicized treatments of Israeli issues tend to be. Which isn't to say that Madden and remake screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan don't handle the relatively tricky past-catching-up-to-the-present mechanics of the story line pretty well.
The movie begins, more or less, with a book party. The daughter of a retired Mossad agent and an agency bigwig has written a tome celebrating a '60s exploit of her parents and a third party, wherein that young trio infiltrated East Berlin to bring to justice a Nazi war criminal known as The Butcher of Birkenau. Helen Mirren plays the older version of Rachel Singer, whose younger self, played by Jessica Chastain, was brought into the operation to get close to the evildoer, re-established as an obstetrician. That Tom Wilkinson's older Stephan is now in a wheelchair, and that Ciaran Hinds' long-absent-from-Israel older David steps in front of a bus in the film's first minutes, already heavily suggests that very heavy stuff went on in East Berlin and beyond. And so we are shown, in sometimes rather excruciating detail, the young trio -- a broody, hunky Sam Worthington plays the younger Dave, while the broody and somewhat older Marton Csokas plays the earlier Stephan -- meeting in East Berlin, showing off their Mossad-y kickboxing chops, and forming an odd love triangle as they sort of make a botch of their project to nab the Nazi doctor, the insinuatingly sinister Jesper Christensen.
The picture is never not watchable, but it's always overplaying its hand in little ways, from how it punishes the viewer with multiple shots of David's death early on to the constant too-emphatic music cues (composed by Thomas Newman). And it tends to sell the viewer short in other ways: The young Rachel's romantic confusion is clearly the result of real emotional and ethical turmoil, but it actually plays as kind of capricious and dopey. All this adds up to a picture that aspires to tragedy but winds up too strident and occasionally trite to reach that point. I suspect that the Israeli version might have been a little more acerbic in its conclusion that truth is the best disinfectant; here the moral has the force of a scolding rather than of a galvanic lived experience.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.