The Debt is what I would call a movie that manages to be quite good in spite of a glaring flaw. It is a fictional story about three retired Mossad (Israeli special forces) agents who, in the current day, are venerated and famous for their actions in bringing an infamous Nazi surgeon to justice. However, this is a framing device for a retelling of their finest hour; The Debt alternates between the present actions of the three in their old age and flashbacks of how they pursued and captured the Nazi surgeon in their youth. It manages to be a very effective way of holding the audience's attention and it certainly holds you spellbound to the screen throughout.
Sadly, I can't talk further about what I liked and disliked about the movie without veering into spoiler territory. So, if you plan on seeing this movie, I would simply advise at this point that it is definitely worth seeing if the premise interests you in the slightest. Then you can always come back and finish reading this review.
The Sliding Scale of Altruism and Opportunism
The Debt has three primary characters. Each of them falls on drastically different points of optimism, cynicism, altruism, and opportunism.
David (Sam Worthington/Ciaran Hinds) is the quintessential good guy; he is quiet, true, and sticks to what he believes in. This can take the form of naivete, and there are a number of points in the movie where he does foolish things in the name of following his own moral compass. I highlight the positive and negative points here to illustrate that, while likable and aspirational, David is not perfect and is not necessarily the best person to follow. He jeopardizes the agents' entire mission because he perceives one of his comrades to be in danger. But, on the flip side, he spends much of his life after the mission trying to atone for what he has done instead of living a lie. If we were to put him on the scale, he would be on the far left and in the deep end of compassion, selflessness, naivete, and good.
Stefan (Marton Csokas/Tom Wilkinson) is David's polar opposite, a fact that has them at odds with each other for the much of the movie. Stefan is the leader of the crew in their mission, which is the perfect role for him. He is opportunistic, realistic, ambitious, and single-minded. He lives in the moment and bases his decisions on what benefits him, with only passing consideration to how this affects others. Given that what benefits him is a successful mission, this contributes to being an effective leader, though this does not work precisely as we expect. He is the instigator of their plan to cover up what actually happened to the Nazi war criminal, and it is the epitome of ass-covering moves. Yet he is not completely irredeemable and we see that, in old age, he has some amount of bond and sympathy for his fellow agents, as well as a melancholy distant attachment to the daughter who can never know that he is her father. Stefan would be on the far right of the scale and in the deep end of selfishness, drive, and cynicism.
But the real center of attention is the main character, Rachel (Jessica Chastain/Helen Mirren) who spends the entire movie flip-flopping between the two extremes. She is, in essence, a blank slate upon which David and Stefan try to, in their own way, write their philosophies. And she is attracted to both, as can be evidenced by her marriage with Stefan yet constant yearning for David. The entirety of the story balances upon the knife that is her choice to go with one or the other, a choice that is forced by their decision to hide what actually happened on their mission long ago. With this, she has to decide to either hide the truth and live her life on a comfortable bedrock of lies (Stefan's choice) or try to confront what actually happened and redeem herself (David's quest).
I found this juxtaposition between characters and the tension between them to be the crux of what made The Debt enthralling to watch. Such a complex character dynamic isn't what you'd expect within a spy thriller, and this put it above the mold for me.
The Endless Stream of Idiocy
But, on the flip side, The Debt is tainted by one enormous glaring flaw. In real life, Israel's special forces, the Mossad, are perhaps the most dangerously effective and capable military group that the world has ever seen. They ascribe to Israel's defensive philosophy that, in order to survive in a world that wants to exterminate you, you must be the best of the best. Failure is not an option. Consequently, Mossad agents train endlessly and are passionate believers in dedicating themselves utterly to Israel and the mission, making them incredibly deadly and skilled.
So why are the Mossad agents in this movie so damned incompetent?
The Debt is full of moments where you wonder if the main characters have ever watched a spy movie in their lives. Their actions are an unending litany of idiocy that the audience, who aren't spies trained by the best of the best, want to shake the screen and yell at the characters to get their shit in gear. The examples are countless, but here are a few of them.
- Rachel not only fails to properly drug the Nazi surgeon, but administers the shot in a face-to-face confrontation when it would have been far easier to stick him when he was unaware.
- David bungles the entire freaking mission by starting a full-blown firefight in the train station instead of trusting in Rachel's ability to get out of a situation that didn't even look that dangerous.
- The entire team idiotically allows the Nazi surgeon to talk with them and psychologically drive them slowly out of their minds when allowing your prisoner such power is a painfully stupid thing to do. Which, of course, in the end allows the prisoner to escape.
- In the final confrontation between Rachel and the Nazi surgeon (years later), Rachel, instead of using her unarmed combat experience to take him down in seconds, inexplicably decides to walk right next to him and allow him the opportunity to stab her repeatedly. For the record, she essentially gets her ass kicked and nearly killed by a 90+ year old man who looks like he's about to have a heart attack throughout the entire confrontation.
And more. If The Debt were a conventional spy thriller without the saving grace of an intense and complicated character dynamic, it would be one of the stupidest movies of the genre I've ever seen. It honestly made me feel bad for the actual Mossad agents out there who watched this and probably spent the entire time trying not to wince or shoot the screen in frustration.
But is that flaw enough for me to suggest avoiding the movie entirely? Not so much. Because the crucial focus of the film is on the characters and Rachel's own growth, the incompetence of the agents is merely a mildly irritating sideshow. And perhaps I don't give it enough credit; I've never been a secret agent behind enemy lines with a hostile captive. Perhaps in such a stressful situation, some harrowing of the nerves and stupid decisions become far more regular and expected.
But, rationally, I kind of doubt it.
Regardless, I do recommend The Debt. It is very much worth seeing, and all the characters are acted brilliantly. I wouldn't be surprised to see this movie featured prominently at the Oscars. I'd just be curious to hear if others thought the same thing of it that I did.