The CIA’s killer spy reputation may be a thing of the past, but “The Debt” is a captivating, intelligent thriller and a reminder of the ruthlessness that pervaded the spy world during the Cold War era.
Adapted from the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” “The Debt’” follows Rachel Singer, one of three Mossad operatives sent to apprehend a Nazi war criminal during the Cold War. The film begins decades later in 1997, when a middle-aged Rachel (Helen Mirren) learns the mission that made her famous may not have gone exactly as she remembers it. The film then flashes back to 1960s Berlin to reveal the younger, little-known Rachel (Jessica Chastain) working with fellow spies David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The film switches between eras to reveal what really happened during the mission and uses the characters’ struggle with the falsehoods in their own pasts to show the burden of living a lie. With its intriguing storyline and adventurous appeal, “The Debt” is a smart thriller that benefits from a talented technical team.
The film stays true to the action-thriller genre — Rachel is slammed facedown into a heater during the film’s opening minutes — but adds artful, character-building scenes to create a balance between the action sequences and powerful storyline.
The well-constructed cinematography has a gray-and-blue color scheme that mirrors the alienation of living as a spy and having to hide one’s true identity from the world. The shots of large spaces with few people add to this feeling of loneliness, while the overall darkness of the film reflects the weighted themes of morality and consequence the story deals with.
The film’s major flaw is the lack of distinction between David and Stephan, which makes it hard to become attached to any character except Rachel — who is easy to spot as the only female central to the story. By the time the film fully distinguishes between the two male leads, it is almost over and may make the viewer feel like they missed an important part of the film.
“The Debt” fills a spot for intellectual action-thrillers that today’s movie selection consistently leaves empty. And, as a historic film, it opens a window to a way of life that cannot be experienced in the modern world.
“The Debt” was adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan and directed by John Madden.
3.5 out of 4 stars