The Official Story, by Kyle Anderson
Everyone has lied about something at one time or another. Some lies are enormous and can grow and fester until the lie has become another part of life. Even with lies that are not so huge, guilt can often compound and confessing the truth is the only thing to assuage the pressure. But how long is too long to wait to right what is wronged? Such is the central theme and moral conflict of John Madden’s new film The Debt, which delves into how a relatively small lie kept for 30 years affects the lives of three Israeli Mossad and subsequently their families. The story is told both from 1997 and from 1965, focusing on the same three characters and the single lie they chose to tell and perpetuate and live. Not as much of a thriller as the trailers would have us believe, The Debt is essentially a character study of how a single choice gets entirely out of hand.
The film takes place in 1997 with flashbacks to the events of 1965. In the opening of the film, a woman is celebrating the release of her book about the heroic trials in 1965 of her mother, father, and a third man who were all Israeli Mossad assigned to kidnap a notorious Nazi war criminal, known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, and bring him back to Israel for trail. Things do not go according to plan, though. The mother, Rachel (played by Helen Mirren) reads a chapter from the book detailing the end of that ordeal, which is the official version of the story. Her ex-husband Stefan (played by Tom Wilkinson) tells her after the celebration that he has just spoken with David (played by Ciaran Hinds), the third man on their mission, whom they have not seen in decades. It seems David has information vital to them and their lives.
It’s at this point that the film shifts back to 1965 and the beginning of their famed mission with Rachel, Stefan, and David played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington, respectively. A strange triangle forms between the three characters as they search for and close in on the Nazi criminal, now working in East Berlin as a gynecologist. The relationships between the three heat up and get more complicated until they finally strike and their mission is fouled up. It comes to a question of coming clean and accepting their mistake or lying and allowing the world to think something is true when it isn’t.
The Debt is a film that’s difficult to explain thematically. Some of the time it’s a mystery, some of the time it’s a thriller, some of the time it’s a character drama. There certainly are covert missions that are exciting and tense within the film, but once it becomes evident the film has little to do with these, they seem almost superfluous. The title itself, The Debt is almost a misnomer because that implies that something needs to be repaid. Instead, the film should have been called, “The Obligation” or “The Pain of Guilt” or even “The Thing We Lied About” because that would more accurately translate the timbre of the movie. The real conflict in the movie has nothing to do with the Nazi criminal himself, but who Rachel will ultimately side with, even 30 years later; Stefan who is perfectly content living the lie, or David who wants to come clean.
The cast is very strong with both the 1965 and 1997 trios bringing a lot to their characters. It’s actually quite impressive that in all three cases both actors portraying a single character are so believable and so even the whole way through. There’s never a doubt that these are the same people only 30 years later. Chastain and Mirren specifically hold the movie together as we see Rachel’s transformation from a scared rookie to a determined and remorseful veteran. Csokas and Wilkinson are also both very strong as Stefan, the flashy leader and later politician. Worthington and Hinds are the enigmas and we certainly get to know David the least of any of them. However, they both convey the proper air of detachment and mystery that make David a character who doesn’t belong in any society in any decade he’s in.
John Madden’s direction is fine, but nothing special. Looking at Madden’s filmography, there are definitely some hits and certainly some misses. With The Debt he’s exhibiting his flair for showing the audience enough to understand the characters. There are some, albeit very minor, action sequences in the film which are sort of flat and lifeless, but he isn’t trying to dazzle, he’s trying to convey the characters’ thoughts and emotions and with that he does a good job. The script by Matthew Vaughan & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan is paced interestingly, showing us the “end” of both timelines at the beginning, meaning we know where we’re going before we know how we got there, which plays in the film’s favor. Apparently, this film is a remake of an Israeli film from 2007 I’d never heard of, also called The Debt. From what I can tell, the two films differ a great deal when it comes to the central theme and, big surprise, this film went with a more “Hollywood” version of events.
As a whole, The Debt works, but it’s not nearly as important or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. The reason to watch the film is the cast, all of whom do a great job. They lend a lot of credence to the plot and characters who, on paper, are little more than representations of differing ideals. By the film’s end, we’re left wondering if Rachel has made the right decision, whether guilt and honor should outweigh personal and familial safety. The movie’s well made and well acted so you could certainly do worse.