I set myself up for a Helen Mirren double-bill by watching this movie and The Tempest back to back. I had heard good things about The Debt but was hesitant to watch it in the theatres because it seemed to have that retro Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy vibe (and I hated that movie). Who knew that spy-fi could be so thrilling even when replacing high-tech gadgetry and high-impact explosions with some real-world drama? This movie is basically two movies in one: the first is set in 1965, where a team of Mossad agents attempt to kidnap a former-Nazi doctor to bring him to trial in Israel. Things don’t quite go as planned, and the second half of the story takes place thirty years later as older versions of that team deal with the resurfacing of certain secrets that came out of the original mission. The younger team is played by Jessica Chastain (Oscar nominee for The Help), Martin Csokas, and Sam Worthington (remember him from Avatar?). Their mission is pretty low-key by movie spy standards. Most of their time is spent having Chastain’s character Rachel Singer go to see this doctor (he’s an OB/GYN), snap photos of him to get confirmation of his identity, then when they’re ready to move she’ll drug him so the rest of the team can grab him. It’s the kind of thing that Tom Cruise and his IM Force could have done in an afternoon. One of the interesting things about this movie is that the real-live 1960s setting means that these operatives can’t use fancy tricks. We know what kinds of things have been invented since that period, so they can’t pretend to have wireless communications, or masks that allow them to pass as other people. Instead, we watch them cut chain-link fences with wire-cutters, timing their efforts to coincide with several passes of trains in order to avoid notice from soldiers. When things go a little off, suddenly their whole plan is in jeopardy. They can’t just go to the nearest fake phone booth and call for “immediate extraction”. This kind of realism is actually kind of exciting because I could relate more to these operatives. Wondering what I would do or how I would react under those same circumstances adds to my tension and engagement. The other element of this team is the love triangle. I admit it was a bit of a snore that the beautiful female agent would give in to the advances of the overbearing jerk of a team leader while secretly nursing affection for the sweet, handsome agent (Worthington’s character David Peretz) who is posing as her husband. It’s such an obvious turn of events whose contrivance is made more so by having their prisoner, Dieter Vogel, use it to play mind games with David (Why do movie Nazis always play mind games? Were they really trained to do that or is that just an expression of their diabolical nature?), which of course leads to some bad consequences.
Part two features Helen Mirren as Rachel, Tom Wilkinson as former team leader and ex-husband Stephen Gold, and Ciaran Hinds as older David. Oddly I didn’t feel like any of the older actors were a good match for their younger selves. I especially found Mirren to be a bit too formidable and strong to play an older Rachel. There’s even a few bits of action when she has to head to the Ukraine to clean up some long overdue loose ends. Again, the tension is slow building and quiet, but Mirren does a pretty good job with the hand-to-hand, and seems pretty bad-ass (see also the movie Red for proof that Mirren kicks butt). With its two time-frames, the overall story is intriguingly complex, involving ethics and choices, stunts and actions, and (eye roll) romantic complications. There are many layers that you don’t usually get in an espionage thriller these days, and it’s fascinating that the film explores some of the consequences of the operatives’ actions. My only question is, why does it have to look and feel so drab? The movies of the 60s have a sort of stale tint about them, but this movie was made in 2010. It should have looked vibrant and modern even if the story was set a few decades back. If it looks like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, does it lose the emotional and dramatic depth or the contextual realism that this movie has? All its intelligence, realism, and excitement are great, but if it had also been as slick as The Bourne Ultimatum or Casino Royale, The Debt would have been perfect (4 out of 5).