Future “Spy 100” lists will be rearranged to incorporate The Debt (2010), a taut, confidently executed mystery about three Mossad agents entrusted with the capture of a notorious war criminal. In 1965, three Israeli secret agents gather in East Berlin. The cagey leader of the trio is Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), while David Peretz (Sam Worthington) is his inscrutable, committed associate. New to the team is Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), brought in to help identify and bring to justice the ruthless Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” The trio of agents complete their high-risk assignment, returning to Israel as heroes, but thirty years later, in Tel Aviv, the story resurfaces as the older spies (played in the later track by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson) deal with unfinished business.
The Debt is serious, convincing, and dark spy stuff, ricocheting adroitly through time to fill in its mystery. For me, the past timeline — which dominates the film — is the more riveting, particularly when the team executes its thrilling abduction. Later, when things get messy, the acting chops come out: all three young principles are strong, with Jessica Chastain really standing out. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nomination for her.) The later track, while it isn’t quite as engrossing, closes out the story satisfyingly. I think part of the issue with these later scenes is getting used to the older actors, after spending much of the film getting invested in the younger ones. This is no dig on the acting, which is terrific, and the casting is shrewd across the timelines — physical resemblance, mannerisms, and speech patterns are replicated impressively. But it does take some effort to readjust to the new group dynamic whenever the era changes. Special note should also be made of Jesper Christensen’s chilling performance as Vogel.
The film is a remake of an Israeli film from 2007, which I’ll definitely have to check out; I’ve heard it’s even better. But this version is definitely a powerful, gritty and suspenseful spy film.