When I think of John Madden, there are few things beyond football that come to mind. So when I saw that someone of the same name had directed the recent European-style thriller, The Debt, I had to double check a few different reliable internet sources to make sure it was the same man who has become a sports (and video game) icon. Only after verifying that it was, indeed, a different individual did I remember that this particular Madden was also responsible for the remarkable, and surprisingly intelligent, film, Shakespeare in Love. With this information buzzing in my head, I had reasonable expectations for The Debt. And I was not disappointed.
The year is 1997 and we meet three retired agents, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds). Singer reads an excerpt from their book expose (presented as a dramatic flashback) that details how the trio killed Nazi war criminal, Doktor Bernhardt (played with Hannibal Lecter lechery by Jesper Christensen) following a botched kidnapping attempt back in 1966 Berlin – but the sideways glances and thinly veiled discontent suggest there is something more to the situation. The film flashes back even farther to when the operation began, showing how the plan was to kidnap Bernhardt and sneak him out of the country to stand trial for multiple murders. One of the beautiful things about this film is, while training for and planning the operation makes for interesting suspense by itself, the plot is given a greater human depth through an increasingly strained (though appropriately subtle) love triangle between the three young agents (played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington respectively). These people are not infallible James Bond caricatures – they are scared, vulnerable people who don’t always make the right moves. In fact, most of the film’s conflict comes from one or more of the characters making a faulty decision. Although watching miraculous, action-packed narratives is certainly entertaining, it is refreshing to watch espionage heroism on a more mortal level.
Another effective element of this film is that, unlike other films that use similar nonlinear narratives (Goodfellas comes to mind), the replay of the opening scene defies our expectations. In the original scene, Bernhardt is shot in the back while fleeing down a back alley. When we see the scene again later, as it really happened, Bernhardt flees down the alley, and while we anticipate the gunshot and his body crumpling to the ground, we watch in desperation as Bernhardt disappears into the night. Verdict: the agents lied about killing him, hence the evident tension during the 1997 book reading. The plot shifts back to the present, where there is a whole new set of conflicts (let’s just call it Plotline #2). In Plotline #2, Bernhardt surfaces after 30 years in exile, and is scheduled to give an interview to tell his story (I guess even monsters are candy to the press). Here, the agents’ objective is not to take Bernardt to trial, but to kill Bernhardt before he puts them on trial for lying about the operation. The present operation is far less noble, perhaps reflecting their diminished nobility for having lived a lie for so long. Singer decides to get her espionage boots back on and finish the job, which is interesting in the same way that movies about retired athletes returning to the game are interesting. We want to see if Singer is still capable, whether the unfolding plan is intentional or a rusty attempt at espionage. The finale keeps the viewer guessing until the very end.
Ultimately, the movie moves along at a reasonable pace, though not if you’re looking for James Bond. It requires a certain level of patience, similar to other political thrillers like Munich and The Constant Gardner. The action in the film plays a close second to the characters, all of whom struggling with something their adversary doesn’t display: a conscience. If you are patient enough to focus on the characters, not just biding your time until the next fight scene, The Debt is for the most part rewarding. The only thing that comes close to harming this movie – the billboarded pacifistic idealism. I don’t consider myself to be a violent man, but even I got antsy when the trio passed on the chance to kill Bernhardt . I wanted justice, not compassion, and even though the movie too often slathers the screen with reckless pacifism, I forced myself to appreciate the realism. We see cinematic characters too readily pull the trigger on their adversaries, sometimes dragging themselves through the mud about it, usually not. That this film sought to portray moral justice over revenge made me care more about the characters. And when Singer finally comes to her senses and offs Berhardt, it means more because she’s not just overcoming her enemy, she’s overcoming her conscience. James Bond might be exciting, but The Debt, in many ways, is poetic.