“The Debt” – Movie Thriller

I saw The Debt last week, mainly drawn by Helen Mirren, whose work I always enjoy.  Not having paid too much attention to the details of reviews, I was surprised to find that she was sharing the role of Rachel with Jessica Chastain.  But then, this film is full of surprises.  I'll try not to include any plot spoilers here.

This is billed as a "spy thriller" in various movie listings, but it is at once less and more.  Usually one thinks of a spy thriller as being a movie in which one follows a secret agent in sorting out some mystery, usually involving a nefarious secret agent from "the other side."  But that's not this story.  A team of three operatives from Israel's Mossad intelligence agency are dispatched to East Berlin based on rumors that the notorious "Surgeon of Birkenau" — an evil doctor who performed disreputable procedures on concentration camp inmates during World War II — is living there, practicing medicine under an assumed name.  They are assigned to confirm the identity, kidnap the doctor, spirit him out of East Berlin and thence to Israel to be tried for his crimes.  And that's all I'll say about the plot, other than to note that the resulting events are traced to thirty years later.

Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to have a double cast for the three Mossad agents – three young actors to portray them in the 1960s on the assignment, and three older actors to portray them in the 1990s as the results of their efforts are revealed.  The young cast include Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas.  The old cast include Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson.  Each cast is fine in their own right – although it is also odd to experience so many goyim (presumably from the names) attempting to portray Israelis, accented English and all…  But there is a problem of suspending disbelief, since the older actors don't really look like thirty-years-older versions of the younger actors.

More to the point, I raise my standard objection here to the practice, too often pursued these days, of jumping back and forth between the two time periods from the beginning of the film, long before the audience has a real clue to what is going on.  It is hard to know who these people are, how they relate to each other, and where the story is going.  To the extent there is a real mystery, it is the mystification of the audience.  It takes half an hour or more to begin to feel comfortable that you know who is who and how they interrelate.  This is clearly a deliberate strategy of the filmmaker, and perhaps keeping the audience mystified is the entire point, but it means that if you really want to savor the skill of both casts, you probably need to see the film twice, since the early scenes undoubtedly take on much more meaning in the interaction of the characters once you know who they are and — in the later period — what the back story is.  Aha!  Another strategy of the filmmaker – he gets two admissions for each customer? 

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