The Screening Room: Some People Owe a Lot More Than Money

debtthumb“The Debt”, along with the Irish movie “The Guard” (co-starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, of all people), are twin islands of cinematic excellence in an end-of-summer sea of mediocrity.


By Mitch Silver

In Time Magazine, Richard Corliss began his review this way: “Earlier this year, Americans rejoiced over the announced execution of Osama bin Laden and made anonymous heroes of the Navy SEAL Team 6 that pulled off the coup. Now imagine that, decades later, these agents are prominent citizens, bathing in the glory of their kill — when news comes to them that the al-Qaeda chief is still alive, in hiding all this time, and that he is ready to unmask the heroes who had, in fact, blown the mission, allowed the mass murderer to escape and faked evidence of his death. Do they let the truth emerge? Or do they send one of their members to find bin Laden and kill him, this time for real?”

debtinGood question. “The Debt” follows three agents, Rachel, Stephan, and David, whose mission is to capture Dieter Vogel, ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau’, a fictional war criminal in the vein of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. As the movie opens, the three are returning home in the mid-1960s to a hero’s welcome but without the prisoner, who died trying to escape from the safe house where they held him behind the Berlin Wall. At least that’s the story they all tell.


We jump to 1997 and the story begins to unravel with the reappearance after many years of David (Ciarán Hinds), who’s clearly in distress … and few actors do emotional distress better than Hinds. No sooner has he made his presence known than he steps in front of an Israeli bus, leaving a moral dilemma behind for Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her now-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson): deal with the debt they owe the nation, and David, by telling the truth, or continue on with the cover-up?


The main characters are played by two sets of actors as their younger and older selves. If you haven’t noticed, this summer has been one big Jessica Chastain Film Festival. First she played Brad Pitt’s strait-laced wife in “The Tree of Life”. Next she was the outsider looking in on Jackson, Mississippi society in “The Help”. Now she’s Israeli agent Rachel Singer, fighting evil in East Berlin for the Mossad in director John Madden’s remake of a 2007 Israeli film, also called “The Debt” (“Ha Hoy”). And she’s every bit as terrific in this part as she was in the others.


Chastain is joined by Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) as the young, troubled widower David, and Marton Csokas, the New Zealand actor with Hungarian roots (“The Lord of the Rings”, “The Bourne Supremacy”) as the tough team leader Stephan.


Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds play their older selves. And here’s where the movie nearly goes off the rails. We’ve all seen the young Helen Mirren in “The Long Good Friday” and, sexy as she was (and is), she looked nothing like Jessica Chastain. Closer to a young Jane Fonda, Chastain has little in common with Mirren, even when they’re both given the same large scar on the cheek.


Worse, I could never remember whether Hinds or Wilkinson was David or Stephan, so unlike the younger actors are they. In a film that demands we go back and forth in time to follow the involuted story, that’s a problem.


On the other hand, there hasn’t been a scene as good and scary as the gynecological examination Vogel (Jesper Christensen of “Quantum of Solace” and “The Young Victoria”) — in the post-war guise of a German doctor — performs on Rachel since Nazi dentist Laurence Olivier kept asking of Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man”, “Is it safe?”


To sum up, “The Debt”, along with the Irish movie “The Guard” (co-starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, of all people), are twin islands of cinematic excellence in an end-of-summer sea of mediocrity. Do yourself a favor: skip “Shark Night 3-D” and go see this one.

I think you’ll be in my debt.

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