Fueled by one of the stronger motivations that could occupy a historical/political thriller, John Madden's The Debt is about the capture of a Nazi war criminal -- an experimental doctor -- for the purpose of holding a trial in Israel for his actions. Three hand-selected operatives orchestrate a cloak-and-dagger mission and, afterward, keep him detained, fed, and clean while their home country prepares for their arrival. That's just the first half of the story; the second explores the operatives' elder years, where they've harbored and lamented the truth of what really happened during his imprisonment. It sounds disheartening, blatantly so, and it might have been had Madden chose to stress historical mourning too heavily. But the Shakespeare in Love director creates a shrewd and skillful espionage thriller that uses reparation, justice, and ultimately retribution for the acts of World War II as enthralling drivers instead of pushy mediums for rumination, punctuated by historical magnitude instead of directly driven by it.
Remade from an Israeli production by the Stardust/Kick-Ass writer duo of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, as well as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Peter Straughan, Madden's film first centers on a modern point in 1997, where the daughter of former Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) -- the youngest and only female among the operation's spies -- has written a book about the events that occurred in mid-'60s Berlin. You'd think that having a mother who took part in the capture would be quite a resource. And she is, but only to an extent; she and her two cohorts haven't been forthright with what truly happened, skirting around a few major details. As Rachel reads a passage from her daughter's book and we're shown the way the event is depicted as the Israeli people understand it, haunted pain clearly stirs in her eyes. Some probably interpret it as the aftereffects of going through the ordeal, still leaving her troubled and pensive to this day, but soon we learn it's because things aren't as they seem.
The Debt indulges our curiosity as it shifts back to Berlin in the early-'60s to recollect the full breadth of the mission's developments, clarifying how a well-trained but green Rachel Singer (filled with barefaced composure by Jessica Chastain) poses as an infertile wife to entrap the doctor-turned-gynecologist, Dieter Vogel, with the aid of her two partners -- Stefan (Marton Csokas), the roguish piano-playing leader, and David (San Worthington), the young closed-off warrior. Director Madden navigates the standard spy build-up with a dutiful cinematic perspective, painting a tidy picture of the operatives' personality types as they orchestrate their mission: how they spar in their weathered apartment, the nervousness that stirs while surveying their target, and rigidly getting to know one another as they await the green light to execute their plan. They're all patriots of different stripes and different motivations, and we're moderately drawn into the dynamic they strike in the walls of the East Berlin apartment.
But this film isn't built to meticulously explore the characters' profundity and why they've signed on for the mission, instead less-ambitiously concerned with the anticipation behind seeing how these patriots -- with a motivation that speaks for itself -- capture the war criminal and keep him detained. Some might look at The Debt's somewhat single-minded thrust as a limitation on its historical and thematic strength, and they're not wrong, but when the suspense captures an electric vintage atmosphere and edginess that's as effective as what Madden's constructed, it's reasonably justifiable. A blur of cloak-and-dagger tactics propels the lengthy stream of events, from the culmination of physical training and the exaction of a clever plan to some on-the-fly thinking during an escape, and it's thoroughly exhilarating while meeting the limited demands set for it. And once we relive the last moments of the espionage mission as they really happened, occurring beat-for-beat in the way it's originally depicted but with a different outcome, it discovers a swell of import that does, in due course, tie to historical consequence.
Don't get me wrong: The Debt does unearth some muffled soul-searching and examination within the story's central flashback, which becomes a driving force once Madden brings us back to the modern era ... and bridges the gap between the two without neglecting a suspenseful beat. When the aged, scarred Rachel comes out of retirement (somewhat by force) to smooth the wrinkles caused by the threat of their secret surfacing to their nation -- requiring her to breathlessly weave and hide in an office, fast-talk her way into buildings, and unsheathe a needled syringe -- the substance seems tailor-made to conduct the flow of suspense, while Helen Mirren captivatingly handles a distressed incarnation of the green Mossad agent we once experience. Yet, it's mostly a means to an end, the drama pigeonholing itself into mere explanations of the motivations behind decisions made in the growingly byzantine thrills, without much cathartic follow-through to the limited emotionality it introduces. This isn't powerful filmmaking; however, it is effectively thrilling against the backdrop of poignant historical circumstance.
Video and Audio:
Shot on film by Matthew Vaughn's go-to cinematographer Ben Davis and mastered at 2K resolution, The Debt arrives from Universal in a 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 presentation that deftly captures the cool, textured look of the spy thriller. You'll get to absorb quite a number of minute details that leap from the image -- Jessica Chastain's light-kissed skin, the words and lines on maps, the crackle on iron bars and walls, and the panels/tiles on floors -- which peek through exceptionally through a sharply-sustained veil of film grain. On top of that, the contrast fluctuations render adequately-dark shadows that shift from deep and inky to soft and grainy as per the photography's intents. Some scenes do, however, exhibit some flatness in general detail that doesn't impress the way it should, but they're a vast minority in comparison to the rest of the picture, which encapsulates the consistent movement at 24fps with a steadily-composed grasp on its digital properties.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track can be equally as impressive as it alternates between pulse-pounding sonic energy and disquieting silence, perhaps more frequently than the digital transfer. Scenes like information exchanges on trains and scenes where the three prepare for their big maneuver ride a steady musical current by way of Thomas Newman's score (which bears his rhythmic signatures all over the place), while quieter sequence let the delicate ambient effects do the talking; the clanking of metal tools in a bag, the jitters of a train on a railway, and drops of water into a bucket sound exceptional. Louder effects are just as potent, from the clash of metal on a hospital floor to the stock sound effects of tires peeling-out, hand-to-hand combat, and the thud of heavy bodies (or feet) on wood flooring. This is exceptional work on the sound front, very well-balanced and sinuous with the cinematic experience. Only English subtitles have been made available here, and they're only able to be selected by manually toggling the subs mid-film.
Audio Commentary with John Madden and Producer Kris Thykier:
This track alternates between genuine insight into the film's sequences and simply offering color commentary to what's going on, while staying very low-key and enjoying a few lengthy breaks in the chat. Therefore, it demands some attention and, possibly, a cup of coffee to stay locked in to the conversation to pick up on the interesting points. There are some, though, from balancing thematic imagery with the grisly Nazi images to the fabric of Rachel's body language and disposition. The most intriguing elements revolve around Madden's discussion about it being a thriller and how to authenticate the material, from the "language of hands" to the way he frames specific objects for added emphasis on both tension and emotion.
As with most of Universal's other recent Blu-ray releases, the rest of the special features boast more in numbers than in sheer content, falling into press-kit style material, complete with interviews, instead of elaborating very far. A Look Inside The Debt (3:17, HD) gives a brief overview of the film itself , Every Secret Has a Price: Helen Mirren in The Debt (3:15, HD) focuses on the award-winning actress and her character, and The Berlin Affair: The Triangle at the Center of The Debt (2:17, HD) talks about the rest of the characters and the link among all three of the spies in the apartment.
Taken on the terms of a work of historical mystery/thriller fiction and as an espionage picture, the tension that The Debt renders in its story of redemption and guilt remains captivating from start to finish. Against the backdrop of '60s Berlin, John Madden focuses on the suspense that's generated by working towards obtaining penance for the Jewish/Israeli nation following World War II, encapsulated in an undercover mission to capture and throw the legal system at a Nazi war criminal. And it keeps itself composed when events go haywire, whether we're talking about the historical time period or the modern-era developments involving the older versions of the spies. What keeps it from greatness is a smoother follow-through and a meatier dramatic punch behind the steady-handed, meaningful suspense, though the impetus behind the trio's decisions don't necessarily require emotional or expository elaboration. The film mostly pivots on its heavy-chested suspense, though, and that's assuredly something Madden gets very right. Universal's Blu-ray boasts impressive audiovisual properties and a few nice extras, including a decent commentary. Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site