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Movie review: ‘The Debt’ is two spy thrillers in one

September 10th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Todd Hamann

A movie within a movie is the best way to describe this summer’s box office hit The Debt. The movie focuses on the ethics behind truth and heroism, and emphasizes that sometimes it is harder to be the one who survives.

The movie follows an elite Israeli Mossad team of three operatives—Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington)—into 1966 communist East Germany to hunt down the “Surgeon of Berkenau” (Jesper Christiansen), a Nazi war criminal hiding as a doctor.

The movie shifts from the 1960s East Berlin to 1997 Tel Aviv, where the now-retired agents Rachel (now Helen Mirren), Stephan (now Tom Wilkinson) and David (now Ciarán Hinds) have been hailed as Israeli heroes for 30 years. They have kept specifics of the mission hidden, but events unfold that force them to reconcile the truth they have been living with for decades to the actual events in East Germany.

The Debt could easily have been split into two movies. The transition from the intensity of the 1967 mission to the subtlety of its 1997 reverberations was sometimes harsh. To battle that, the movie would revisit flashback scenes several times, adding a bit more detail as the storyline caught up. As a result, through most of the move the audience knows what will happen, but waits to see how it will happen.

This is no casual watch, nor would it be a movie to relax to. Its richness as a psychological thriller is evident once Rachel enters East Germany for the first time. Two of the three main characters lost family members in the Holocaust and take the mission very personally.

The audience is tasked with the job of piecing the story together, as it is not presented directly. Action comes in waves throughout the movie, just enough to keep the audience engaged.

Mirren and Wilkinson give outstanding performances in this film, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).

All in all, The Debt is artistically written, superbly acted, and reasonably executed. It was a great spy movie, combined with a good consequences movie. There could have been more development with both sides of the movie—split it into two movies and the audience would have benefited.

My final word is that The Debt is definitely worth seeing as an artistic movie, not so much a date movie, but one that will prompt viewers to examine their own ethics with how they display truth and the motives behind it.


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  1. One Response to “Movie review: ‘The Debt’ is two spy thrillers in one”

  2. By Corlyss on Sep 16, 2011

    Too little Mirren + too little story = 2hrs wasted.
    The guy who played the kidnap victim was phenomenal. Now THAT was acting!

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