The Debt is equal parts history lesson, terse thriller and a lesson in cross generational filmmaking by director John Madden.
The film features two sets of stars, one anchored in the 1960s and another in the late 1990s. In a case of performance squared at its best, Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain share Rachel, Sam Worthington and Ciaran Hinds combine as David and Tom Wilkinson portrays Stephan in dual decades with Marton Csokas.
Mannerisms, speech cadence and characterization are all on the same page which is largely due to the directorial eminence of Madden. The Academy Award nominee for Shakespeare in Love weaves a web of deceit, heroism and history of a young nation born of survival from a madman’s will to annihilate.
After World War II came to a close, the Israeli version of the CIA, Mossad -- the Israeli Secret Service -- began its incarnation by traversing the globe in search of souls responsible on even the minutest of fronts for the extermination of over six million people.
In The Debt, Mossad comes to life for the audience in East Berlin in the hands of Chastain’s Rachel, Worthington’s David and Csokas’ Stephan. The trio is in the Soviet occupied city to capture a Nazi criminal and bring him to justice in Israel.
Madden’s film lets the audience in on the basic details of what happened in East Berlin through the introduction scenes of the film rooted in the year 1997. Mirren is at a book launch luncheon and takes the stage to read pages from her daughter’s book that details her mother and two other agents’ patriotic producing mission at the close of World War II. The only problem is: Nothing is as it seems and that fact sends Mirren on a journey that is rooted in her personal destiny.
The Debt captures so much with so little of scope. One could see The Debt as a stage play. Credit to that fact has to go to the film’s screenwriters, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. Developing characters across decades while still keeping the audience firmly wrapped into the characters’ going-ons in the present is a difficult task. Vaughn’s script intertwines the two stories which allows Madden to masterfully move his film’s chess pieces. It is a priceless move when telling any thrilling story.
Showing the lengths to which a nation will go to achieve righteousness, or even the subconscious feeling of justice is what The Debt drives at. The film is a thriller. Madden’s movie also is a movie about love and how personal sacrifice can supplant lifelong passion. But, one image remains strong over the spectrum of visual mastery in The Debt. When Chastain, Worthington and Csokas walk off a military plane onto a sun scorched Israeli landing strip to a heroes' welcome, conflict overcomes the audience.
Why do these national heroes look so solemn?
The Debt is full of Jeopardy-type answers that lead all to that story-ending question. Therein lies the brilliance of The Debt. Mirren and company have crafted the rare film: One that entertains as it enlightens and enthralls.