Movie review: ‘The Debt’

In theaters

“The Debt,” written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, Assaf Bernstein (original) and Ido Rosenblum (original), directed by John Madden, 114 minutes, rated R.

Conspiracies, both real and fabricated, have helped political thrillers endure in Hollywood for years. But it’s a secret, not a large-scale cover-up, that drives “The Debt,” the new film from John Madden.

In 1966, the three agents were sent on a top secret mission into East Berlin to find a sadistic Nazi war criminal known as the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christenesen), to bring him to Israel and have him put on trial.

Having been left with no option but to gun down their prisoner in the streets as he attempted to escape (or so they say), the three return to Israel as heroes. Instead of pride, however, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are overwhelmed with guilt.

Why the guilt? Because their story is a lie, and only three people really know what happened that night. Thirty years later, the truth comes back to haunt them.

“The Debt,” a remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” is a well-crafted thriller that builds a mystery and unravels it with perfect timing, flawlessly bouncing back and forth between 1966 and 1997. Madden, as well as screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, are meticulous in their storytelling, leaving the audience with a desperate need to know what comes next — the crux of any good thriller.

The movie also taps into its characters’ psyche, trapping them for days in an run-down East Berlin apartment with their detainee. Although tied up, Dieter Vogel (aka the Sugeron of Birenau), an expert in torture, is able to exploit each of the agents’ personal vulnerabilities to his advantage, bringing the three to the brink of madness.

That emotional weight exhibited in the apartment — the bitterness, dishonor and jealousy lingering from the mission — gets passed on from the younger actors to their elder counterparts — Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson.

But no matter how much I admire Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson, I’m reluctant to accept them as Mossad agents from Israel. Here, we find another example of “whitewashing” in Hollywood, and for “The Debt,” which relies heavily on authenticity, it runs the risk of destroying the credibility that it works so hard to establish.

Add to that the film’s final act, which stretches the boundaries of believability just a little too far, and “The Debt” loses some of its luster.

But in an era where nearly every espionage story feels like a Jason Bourne imitation, it’s easy to dismiss the film’s minor flaws and focus on all of the things “The Debt” does so well.

Grade: B

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