The Debt is a movie about choices. According to elementary economics, every choice has an associated opportunity cost - or the consequence of choosing one action over another. I can choose to lie on my résumé to get a job, but I'll risk being exposed as a fraud if I'm tasked to perform a duty in which I claimed to be an expert. In The Debt, based on an Israeli movie from 2007 of the same name, each character makes a choice, for varying reasons, and eventually they each have to confront those choices much later in life.
Inhabiting the same secretive and morally charged world of 2005's Munich, The Debt begins in 1997 Israel as an author, being lauded for her new book, describes the heroic actions of a group of Mossad agents thirty years prior. It just so happens that the author's parents, played adeptly by Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, were part of the three person team that captured and killed notorious Nazi doctor, "The Surgeon of Birkenau," (clearly based on Josef Mengele) in early 1960s East Berlin. However, Mirren's scowl whilst her daughter regales her heroic story belies a profound conflict. The film seamlessly takes us back to the tense-filled weeks and months as the team prepares and carries out the dangerous operation.
The Surgeon of Birkenau, or Dieter Vogel, is terrifyingly portrayed by Danish actor, Jesper Christensen, whose scrofulous eyes are surrounded by a malevolent face. A villain in the truest sense, he proves to be a formidable opponent, even after his capture, as he mocks and manipulates the individual members of the team who are desperate to jettison him back to Israel to face trial for his crimes. At one point, the leader of the operation, Stefan (played powerfully by Marton Csokas) reminds his team, "Don't talk to him. Don't listen to him. He's not human."
The suspense is two-fold. First, the cinematography and editing, convey the paranoid claustrophobia of a group of young agents who, driven by tremendous personal loss, steel themselves to carry out the operation against almost impossible odds. Second, and more engaging, is the tension built up by the reality of the future. The operation was by all accounts a great success, and yet none of the "adult" versions act like it was - Mirren's Sarah and Ciarán Hinds' David are particularly perturbed. As we watch the team carry out the capture and abduction, we keep searching for clues as to what went wrong, what event or detail could possibly continue to haunt these characters? It is a deftly played technique by director John Madden which results in a film whose tautness and sudden fits and jolts keeps the audience on edge throughout. It isn't until the final denouement that the debt to which the film refers is fully revealed.
A film about choices invariably veers into a film about dealing with those choices. And like Bob Marley soothingly warned, "you're running away, but you can't run away from yourself."