According to Wikipedia, the modern-day definition of a hero is a character that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. The Debt tells the story of three people who may or may not fit this description. I have to be careful with my wording here, since the film depends on a great deal of secrecy – and to my great surprise and delight, very few of the secrets have been spoiled in the ad campaign. I can say that these characters are Israeli secret agents, and that their story is told by shifting back and forth between two very different timeframes. The first is the mid 1960s, when all three are in their twenties and thirties. The second is the year 1997, at which point they discover that the past has a way of coming back to haunt you.
A remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is an engrossing thriller that forces the audience to reconsider common notions of heroism. I’ve noticed how frequently we apply the label of “hero,” despite the fact that, in most cases, we have no real idea who the person is. This isn’t to suggest that heroes don’t exist – I know for a fact that they do. My point is that if we go by what we’ve heard and not by what we’ve actually seen, we’re reacting too hastily. We should require more than just hearsay. As far as the people of Israel are concerned, Mossad agents Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold, and David Peretz are indisputably heroes, each having performed an invaluable service to their country. In the opening scene, Rachel’s daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), is at a book launching, proudly reads a passage from her written account of her mother’s life. Rachel can only sit pensively as memories resurface.
Their mission was to infiltrate East Berlin and track down a notorious Nazi war criminal. In World War II, he was known as Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau – a man known for his sadistic experiments on Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. During the flashback sequences, he goes by the name Dr. Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), and he practices clinical gynecology. We follow Rachel, Stephan, and David (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) as they prepare for and ultimately embark on their mission, and while I won’t divulge the specifics, I will say that it will have the inevitable twists and turns. One aspect of the plot I can be more forthcoming about is the romantic tension between Rachel and David, which seemed to stem from an almost animalistic need to make an emotional bond in a desperate situation. Stephan gets involved, although in a much different way. By and large, he’s too busy trying to save face on this mission.
If you thought my descriptions of the 1960s segments were annoyingly vague, brace yourself for my descriptions of the 1997 segments, which will be downright maddening. At this point in the story, Rachel, Stephan, and David (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds) have retired from Mossad and gone their separate ways, although the gratitude of the people of Israel has not diminished. Rachel continues to make appearances at seminars and lectures, regaling audiences with stories of her act of heroism. An unforeseen event reunites Rachel and Stephan, the latter now confined to a wheelchair. This event, which Rachel eventually realizes she was responsible for, paves the way for a mission that only she can accept. Given what she was told, she has little choice in the matter.
While the final scenes test the limits of suspension of disbelief, there’s no denying that they’re appropriate within the context of a political thriller. To an extent, they’re also satisfying. I can’t really elaborate on why; let’s just say that, by accepting this mission, Helen has at last been given the opportunity to say what should have been said a long time ago. At this point in the story, her heroism is certain. What remains in question is whether or not it will be accepted by her people; if anything, they may never even know what took place on this particular mission. At the very least, they will certainly remember her original mission from thirty years earlier, when she and her team gave Israel something more to believe in.
Since I have no desire to continue evading the specifics of the plot, let me take a moment to address the actors. They all give wonderful performances, but the standout is Chastain, who this year alone has wowed me in both The Tree of Life and The Help. As the young Rachel, it was not only her job to lay the groundwork for Mirren’s performance, but also to walk the fine line between physical strength and emotional vulnerability. She pulled it off splendidly. If there was a drawback to this character, it was in having to take part in a romantic subplot which, while competently handled, was unnecessary. But as an espionage thriller – and, more importantly, as a critical examination of heroism and how it’s applied to people – The Debt is suspenseful, engaging, and thought provoking.