‘The Debt’ Owes Much to ‘Munich’
Much like 'Munich', 'The Debt' engages the audience with covert-ops, but ultimately leaves them wanting more.
When I traveled to Israel in high school for a two-month education program, our instructor was a bearded, muscular Brooklyn-born badass who had served in the nation's wars and participated in numerous activities on behalf of the state of Israel in the years since.
One of these, he used to say, was a stint in South America in the 1970s "hunting Nazis." He was never especially clear about whether that meant rounding up Nazis for trial or actually shooting them.
A remake of an Israeli picture of the same name—and the rare movie about Israel released stateside that in no way touches on the Arab-Israeli conflict—The Debt sports an intriguing premise and uniformly strong performances, but its second act is mediocre and its third act even worse. It can't help but pale in comparison to Steven Spielberg's Munich—a similar but much better film in just about every way.
Directed by John Madden (not the football announcer, but the director of Shakespeare in Love), The Debt's story toggles between 1966 and sometime in the 1990s. In the '60s, a trio of Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) are sent to divided Berlin to find a Mengele-like Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen) and bring him back to Israel for trial. In the '90s scenes, the characters (now played by Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson) are dealing with the aftermath and the possible exposure of secrets from 30 years before.
The premise is intriguing, yes, but Munich got there first. Spielberg's 2005 film remains under appreciated, largely because of vocal opposition from three different groups—those who consider it either insufficiently pro- or anti-Israel, and Spielberg haters. But it is a deep, honest, and very brave examination of violence, revenge and Jewish identity that worked brilliantly on a whole other level as an intriguing and entertaining spy thriller.
There are a few parts of The Debt up there with the best of Spielberg's movie—a sequence in which Chastain has to go undercover as an OB/GYN patient of the Nazi doctor's, and later scenes in which the agents—children of Holocaust survivors all—are tempted to kill the Nazi rather than carry out their mission. Otherwise, The Debt doesn't delve nearly as deeply into those issues, and the thriller elements are all but absent except for the very last scene, in which it turns into another genre altogether.
Munich's biggest weakness is its last five minutes, but The Debt's ending is even worse, complete with laughably unconvincing old-age makeup. It also ends five minutes too early—I would have loved to see the reactions to the other characters to what happens at the conclusion.
The six main actors, all playing Israelis, are two Americans, two Brits, an Australian and a New Zealander, and none of them are anyone's idea of an Israeli. They do mostly well, especially Chastain, who has come out of nowhere this year to shine in three very different roles, in Tree of Life, The Help and now The Debt.
The only exception is Worthington. The star of Avatar can't seem to make much of an impression when acting opposite other people as opposed to special effects.
I'm not saying this out of bitterness over Madden's Shakespeare in Love having beaten out Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1999, I swear, but if you're going to see a movie about guilt-wracked Israeli Mossad agents, make it Munich.
The Silver Screen Rating: 2 star (out of 5)
Roll Credits: The Debt
Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds
Length: 1 hour 44 minutes
Regal Warrington Crossing 22 – Click for showtimes.