The Holocaust will always haunt the Israeli psyche. The mass murder of three million Jews was the most barbaric effort at extermination of an entire people, and it was the final catalyst to bring about the creation of a Jewish state, a homeland for those who wandered in the Diaspora. There was also a need to punish those responsible for the barbarism inflicted on innocents. The capture, trial, and execution of Adolph Eichmann by the Mossad is one of the most legendary feats in Israel's short history, and The Debt appears to borrow from that page in history to create a morality tale of whether the truth is as important as the myth. There are good things within The Debt, but the good it has is undone by a ludicrous third act that brings the film down in so many ways.
The Debt bounces between 1997 and 1966. In the present, we have three ex-Mossad agents: Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), her ex-husband and current Cabinet minister Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), and the deeply troubled David (Ciaran Hinds). Rachel and Stephan's daughter has written an account of their greatest exploit: capturing and killing Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the Surgeon of Birkenau. They were to bring him to trial in Israel, but as The Debt shows, they were forced to kill him. Or so we think.
The past segments of The Debt show how it really happened. Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is a new agent on her first mission. With her are two experienced agents: Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington). The trio plan out the capture of Vogel, but in the ways of film, complications both professional and romantic ensue. In order to get close to Vogel, who goes by the name Bernhardt and has become an OB/GYN, Rachel must enter the Soviet-controlled East Berlin and pretend she is trying to get pregnant, with David passing as her husband. While Rachel and David share a silent attraction, it's with Stephan that she sleeps with.
Eventually, they do capture Vogel, but their efforts to spirit him away out of East Berlin fails, forcing them to hold him while Mossad tries to find another way out. In his captivity, Vogel taunts Rachel and David with his anti-Semitism, and we learn The Truth: Vogel was not killed trying to escape. Vogel did escape and went into deep hiding. The trio, to avoid the shame of failure, create the story of his 'death', and return heroes.
Back in 1996, after David's death (in a remarkably gruesome way), Stephan and Rachel learn that Vogel may actually still be alive in the Ukraine. Reluctantly, Rachel goes to find if it's true and to, I figure, finish it alone, Stephan now in a wheelchair due to another Mossad operation. Rachel learns the truth about this "Vogel", and The Debt ends with both Rachel and Stephan's career in the Knesset possibly ending too.
The Debt is strongest when it focuses on the hunt and capture of Vogel. When we have the planning and the emotional toll bringing the Nazi criminal in causes on the Mossad agents, we get a sharp, action-oriented story that doesn't short-shift the character's lives. However, once we get away from that story, and go either into the 'love story' or any time in the present day especially the Ukraine third act, The Debt gets bogged down in clichés and bizarre, almost nonsensical plot points.
Let's go into the cliché parts first. One wonders how and why the Mossad, the single greatest spy agency ever created (sorry, CIA), would send a novice like Rachel for such a sensitive and crucial mission. Further, knowing what kind of training Mossad agents go through, I kept wondering whether they go through any psychological training so as to endure the taunts of Vogel. Sometimes it's almost laughable to think that with what he says to Rachel or David that they could crack so easily.
However, nothing is as truly laughable as the third act, the Ukraine Movement as I call it. Everything about it seems far too cinematic to believe. First, Rachel has to go through some Watergate-style break-in to the small independent newspaper to find where 'Vogel' might be; couldn't Stephan as a Cabinet member employ someone to investigate it on the hush-hush? Even more ludicrous is when we find the actual Vogel.
Allow me to explain. Using Christensen's actual age at the time The Debt was released, Vogel/Bernhardt would be 63 years old in 1966. That part is believable. Now, add thirty-one years to that when Rachel comes upon him in 1997. Are we seriously suppose to believe that a 94-year-old man can be so agile and quick that he can take down an ex-Mossad agent with almost the greatest of ease? It's completely unbelievable, laughable, and downright silly to expect anyone to stretch their imagination to think a man in his NINETIES could have that kind of mental and physical dexterity to overpower someone in her SIXTIES.
If that weren't enough in the cliche department, we have in the Ukraine movement Rachel getting trapped within the office by a late-night booty call from a worker there and the man she brings to the office. Isn't it always the case that whenever you're breaking into an office someone just happens to show up to have sex there at the same time? And that's just in the weak third act.
The other acts have their share of problems. Once the trio have Vogel in their possession, they have worked out the plan to get him out of East Berlin, but wouldn't you know it: they run into complications both external and with Vogel himself. I thought while watching that, "there have to be complications, don't they. Aren't there always insurmountable complications?"
I know that there were complications when they captured Eichmann and smuggled him out of Argentina and when the Israelis stormed the Entebbe Airport, but at least in those real-life events the plans themselves worked. In this plan, not only did nearly everything go wrong but there never appeared to be some sort of back-up plan in case of failure.
Finally, there is the romance angle which I figure has to exist because of the appearance of Chastain and Worthington, two beautiful people gaining popularity in film today. Rachel appears to love David, and David appears to love Rachel, but it's Stephan with whom she sleeps with. That part of the story wasn't believable because it appears to come out of nowhere. The unspoken attraction between Rachel and David itself appears to be something out of a plot development rather than something that grows out of the situation.
I figure this is because Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan were hampered in having to adapt this version from the script for Ha-Hov (which I believe means The Debt in Hebrew) by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum.
One problem in terms of acting is when we go to 1997. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I don't see how you get Ciaran Hinds out of Sam Worthington or Tom Wilkinson out of Marton Csokas. It gets more complicated when we see that Csokas looks more like Hinds than he does Wilkinson. I could see Chastain becoming Mirren, but since Hinds is in The Debt for such a small amount of time it doesn't appear plausible that Worthington could be a younger version of Hinds. When we see Worthington and Csokas, you know who is who. When we see Wilkinson, we can be forgiven if we forget which one of the two he's suppose to be.
Both Chastain and Mirren excel as the younger and older Rachel: one who carries fear on her mission, the other who carries regret from it. Csokas was also good as the tough, aloof Stephan, the leader who will brook no dissention or bumbling. Even Worthington, whom I've always seen as wooden (examples: Avatar, Clash of the Titans), actually managed a good performance as the young and already troubled, haunted David.
Again and again however, it's when we get to the present story that The Debt under-performs.
For myself as a viewer, I would have preferred to have seen more of the 1966 part of the story and less of the 1997 version, especially the Ukraine Movement. Even in 1997, the story jumps around in time to where we see the same scene with slightly more information the second time round, which can be frustrating when watching The Debt. John Madden as the director not only got good performances out of his cast (especially from Worthington, a miracle of cinema), but also created moments of action and tension particularly when we think the trio will get Vogel out of East Berlin (operative word, think).
The Debt, however, carries those flaws that push the film down from a meditation about truth versus myth to at times both a weak 'love story' and a bizarre third act climax that could have been reworked to make both more interesting and yes, believable.
I figure that the makers of both the Israeli or American version of The Debt either never saw or took the lesson from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". The film appears to argue that Israel, indeed the world, need to know that Nazi monsters escaped and that the stories they tell us and each other about themselves and about there being no escaping justice are at best irrelevant, at worst wrong.
I argue against that: I think that myth is as important as is the truth. Lincoln was not a saint, neither was Martin Luther King, Jr. However, people need myths to create a common identity, to find sources of inspiration. The Debt may argue that the truth must always win out, but sometimes we do need to "print the legend" because the legend has value too.
In short, while not as good as it could have been, The Debt has just enough to make it worth some time.