Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Debt" Mossad Agents

The Debt is an unusually smart spy film, telling a good story without losing credibility. The Mossad protagonists aren't the super-efficient (if troubled) heroes of Munich, but inept amateurs whose convoluted plan goes awry. The richly drawn characters help a lot: the love triangle that develops is tastefully handled, and Vogel is given a human side to balance out his evil nature. The second half of the film, with the protagonists perpetuating a face-saving lie that echoes down through the decades, provides some disquieting food for thought. How much of any country's national myth is built on convenient, self-aggrandizing falsehoods?

The 1960s scenes are brilliant: well-acted, cleverly plotted and gripping, the flashbacks make for engrossing viewing. The modern day scenes are servicable but suffer in comparison: the trio's future relationships are hinted at, but we don't learn enough about the intervening thirty years to make their older incarnations compelling. Then there's the contrived ending, which tries too hard to mix an intellectual message with a crowd-pleasing climax.

John Madden's direction is assured without being flashy, his crisp staging of key scenes (especially a railyard shootout) and Ben Davis's photography the perfect air of tension. The film is carefully crafted, with the flashbacks and modern scenes complementing each other perfectly.

Jessica Chastain is having a breakout year, with roles in this film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and The Help. She's just about perfect here, a wonderful mixture of vulnerability, toughness and doubt. Sam Worthington (Avatar) scores with a quietly intense performance and Marton Csokas (Lord of the Rings) is perfect. Jesper Christiensen (Quantum of Solace) gives a wonderfully complex performance, making Vogel a very human monster. Helen Mirren makes the most of her limited role, but Tom Wilkinson (Valkyrie) and Ciaran Hinds (Munich) are wasted.

The Debt is a solid spy thriller. Despite its flawed conclusion, it remains a smart, thought-provoking film.

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