A remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, the high-toned thriller The Debt operates on two tracks, set partly in 1965 East Berlin and partly in 1997 Israel, with two trios of actors playing the same characters decades apart.
In the film's present, a young author is presenting her new book, an exciting historical account of Nazi-hunting Mossad agents tracking a Josef Mengele-type concentration camp monster, "The Surgeon of Birkenau" (Jesper Christensen)," in East Berlin, an episode that ends with one agent, the author's mother, shooting the war criminal in the street to keep him from fleeing.
The three now-middle-aged agents — Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciarán Hinds) — are uneasy about the attention, in different ways, and we soon find out why, as the film flashes back to Berlin to show that the real story differs from the official one.
In 1965, we see new agent Rachel (Jessica Chastain), in the field for the first time, posing as the wife of David (Sam Worthington), whom she meets at an East Berlin checkpoint. They're sharing a barren apartment with mission leader Stephan (Marton Csokas), the most pragmatic, least idealistic and ideological of the crew. The target is living under a new name and practicing as an obstetrician and the plan to get close to him is to have Rachel set an appointment as a wife with fertility problems.
The Debt thrives in its 1965 period via a series of well-staged espionage set pieces — the mission preparation, Rachel's unsettling reconnaissance mission, the exciting heist-like abduction, and the failed nighttime extrication at a border train station.
Their orders had been to bring the former Nazi back to Israel for a trial, but when the extrication fails, the trio are stuck holding the prisoner back in their Berlin apartment — bound and gagged — a situation that's meant to make their once righteous mission more morally tangled.
As directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), The Debt is more assured as a traditional cloak-and-dagger piece than it is with the ethical gray areas, lacking the searching discomfort of the other recent Hollywood Mossad movie, Steven Spielberg's Munich.
For most of the film, moral questions are obscured by the tight genre mechanics. With a third act that finds the 1997-era Rachel and Stephan trying to clean up the loose ends of the past, The Debt's larger issues are fully — if unintentionally — submerged in genre mechanics.
I'll confess to struggling somewhat with the film's casting of the male roles. Worthington plays the younger version of Hinds but seems a better physical match for the fairer Wilkinson. Meanwhile, Csokas, who plays the younger Wilkinson, looks much more like Hinds.
As someone who often doesn't register character names in movies, I found this disorienting and it took me a bit to sort out. Luckily, the men here are strictly secondary. And while Oscar winner Mirren gives a handsome performance, the star here is the suddenly ubiquitous Chastain, who is commanding in a more physically demanding and diverse role than her graceful earth mother in The Tree of Life or good-natured outcast in The Help.