Director John Madden has had a rough career since his 1999 Oscar nomination for Shakespeare in Love, with box-office bombs (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), awards also-rans (Proof) and a thriller that essentially went straight to video (Killshot). So it’s gratifying to see him back in top form with The Debt, a smart and effective spy movie based on a 2007 Israeli film. The Debt isn’t likely to get Madden back to the Oscars, but it is well-crafted and involving, with a solid mix of suspense and political commentary. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s Munich, another recent movie about badass Jewish secret agents, The Debt is only superficially interested in questions of religious and national identity. Although it involves Mossad operatives tracking down a former Nazi scientist, the story could easily be transplanted to another setting (say, FBI agents chasing a drug kingpin) without losing its impact.
That’s because it’s really about the main trio of agents and how far they’re willing to go to protect their country, themselves and each other. The movie is divided between the initial mission to kidnap the man known as the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) from East Germany in the 1960s, and 30 years later when unfinished business from the operation comes back to haunt its participants. Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington play the younger versions of the characters, while Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson (along with a briefly appearing Ciaran Hinds) play their older counterparts. While all of the actors do excellent work conveying the mix of determination and self-doubt that informs every decision these people make, the two generations of performers don’t effectively connect to one another, and the result is like watching two sets of very interesting characters rather than a single group in two different eras.
Still, Madden keeps things fast-paced and tense, and he takes just enough breaks for political and philosophical struggles that the story has a sense of greater purpose. It’s the emotions and actions of the characters, though, especially Chastain and Mirren’s proud but conflicted Rachel, that form the core of the movie, and they remain gripping all the way to the bittersweet end.