The Debt begins by revealing one of its climactic scenes: A Nazi war criminal escapes from his Israeli captors, brutally assaulting one of them in the process. She recovers from the beating just in time to shoot him dead before he escapes into hiding forever.
The heroic scene is recounted 30 years after it happened by Rachel Singer (played by Helen Mirren in 1997, and Jessica Chastain in 1965), at the launch of a book detailing the Mossad mission to identify a suspected Nazi war criminal and return him to Israel to stand trial. But not all of the team is basking in heroic glory: One member commits suicide, suggesting that something happened on the mission that no one wants to talk about.
The first half of The Debt is an excellent caper film, though one with a more somber tone than Oceans 11: Three Israeli agents have been sent to East Berlin to identify and kidnap a suspected Nazi war criminal. Rachel arrives for the final steps of the plan: with the suspected Nazi doctor working as a fertility doctor, a female agent has the best opportunity to get close enough to verify his identity and put the extraction plan into action.
In a series of increasingly creepy appointments – if you think spying on a Nazi is tense, just imagine doing it while he’s probing your cervix – Rachel verifies that the friendly doctor is, in fact, Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau (an obvious stand-in for Josef Mengele). The team is faced with their next problem: Getting him out of Soviet-controlled East Germany and then on to Israel to stand trial. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly as planned, and they’re forced to hide out in their ratty apartment with an unplanned hostage while they wait for another opportunity to escape. Then the thing happens, and everyone agrees never to speak of it again.
To this point, The Debt is a pretty snappy film: It’s tense, it has some well-executed action sequences, and the cast manages to squeeze some genuine emotion in between plot points. Jesper Christensen manages to be scary and vile without crossing over into mad supervillain territory, and his scenes with Chastain and Sam Worthington are riveting. And when the big plot twist happens, it turns the entire film on its head; I feel fairly confident saying you won’t see it coming.
That sets off the second half of the plot, as Rachel and Stephan debate how they’re going to set things right. The modern-day element of the film isn’t nearly as satisfying as the first half; it’s much more straightforward and plot-driven, as though the filmmakers were in a hurry to get everything tied up neatly. It’s unfortunate, since the modern-day cast of Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarin Hinds don’t get much to do. Wilkinson is particularly wasted, with most of his role reduced to exposition and direction. (And while the old/young casting of Mirren/Chastain and Wilkinson/Csokas holds up well, it’s hard to imagine Worthington aging into Hinds.)
There are a lot of compelling developments in the second half, but it all happens much too quickly, as characters discover new information, decide on a plan, discover new information again, and wrestle with their feelings about it all in time to wrap things up. It’s mostly Mirren’s work, with Wilkinson and Hinds playing devil and angel on her shoulder, the former arguing for the status quo and the latter talking about morality.
The second half of The Debt also begins to strain credulity, as Rachel – despite being a rookie on the Berlin mission and established as not working as an operative for most of the time since – jumps back into the espionage field like James Bond, accepting both its dubious moral aims and challenging operational requirements with ease.
(One might similarly wonder about the effectiveness of the team in 1965. The film points out how young they were, but omits any explanation of why some more seasoned operatives wouldn’t have been sent on such a vital mission. Rachel’s inexperience is understandable – a female operative who spoke fluent German might have been hard to come by – but surely they could have included one experienced agent?)
It’s unfortunate, because the themes of the second half – guilt, pride, and coming to terms with the past – are powerful, and the cast was certainly well-equipped to handle them. As it stands, The Debt does its hour of action and suspense quite well, before attempting to tidy everything up far too quickly.