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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

The Debt | Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Jessica Chastain | Review

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  5_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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The Debt

A 1997 book release party sparks a sequence of events that literally changes the course of history, or at least the perception of that history.  The book documents the accomplishments of three daring Mossad agents back in the mid sixties, and its author is the daughter of two of them.  One of the book’s subjects, Rachel (Helen Mirren) appears to be extremely ill at ease.  The arrival of her estranged husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) brings tragic news about the third agent David (Ciaran Hinds).

Then, as it will continue to do for nearly the entire film, flashbacks from the mission are intercut with the present day.  The first of these introduce the three young Mossad agents as they embark on a daring mission to secretly apprehend and transport a former Nazi doctor out of East Berlin.  The mission is heart-stoppingly dangerous.  Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) appear to be husband and wife, although they are really meeting for the first time.  They rendezvous with Stephan (Marton Csokas) in an apartment they share as a communal headquarters.

Armed guards patrol the Berlin Wall and its surrounding train stations.   Passports may be demanded and inspected at any time.  The three agents swiftly put their plan into action, resulting in the capture of aging doctor Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who’s practicing medicine under an assumed name as, ironically, an OB-GYN.  Once known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, Vogel now assists women in bringing life into the world instead of exterminating it.

Rachel becomes his patient in a ruse that ultimately leads to his capture. 
Misfortune strikes, both in the present day and back during the exploits and logistics of snaring Vogel that change the three agents in irrevocable ways.

There is also a complicated triangle between Rachel, Stephan (now her husband) and David (the one she really loves).  Hard choices in these personal and professional relationships weigh heavily on Rachel and David.  Stephan makes the best of it, strident in his rationalizations and eagerly collecting accolades as if they were his birthright.

All three have been hailed as heroes for decades by the Nation of Israel because of this mission.  They give inspirational talks to Israeli youth about their role in the capture of Vogel, much of it by rote memorization that never varies.  Rachel speaks of her exploits with discomfort while Stephan revels in his celebrated status.  Something is amiss.

If it all seems a bit mysterious that’s because the whole story is based on a discovery best left to the audience.  The Debt is a film that you must construct from pieces, and when they all come together the ethical quandary begins.

Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren anchor the film, and their scenes are the most riveting, tension-filled and taxing (for them and the viewer).  Sam Worthington’s David is the conscience that won’t rest easy.  Ciaran Hinds continues the portrayal with a face heavy with gravitas and conviction.  Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson embody the bold, often reckless mission leader that starts nobly but is silenced into complacency by the seduction of acclaim.

Jesper Christensen as Vogel turns in a chilling portrait of a kindly old man who can slip out of that persona like a snakeskin to inhabit his old familiar monster suit.

Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) helms an intelligent thriller, constructing each taut scene to build upon the next, unveiling just enough information at each juncture before stealthily revealing a surprising, worrisome secret.

Honor and integrity co-star, along with deceit, omission, and fraud.  When philosophical differences clash, more than the principals are bound to be charged, a cumbersome I.O.U. for anyone to bear, especially those thought to be heroes.

At the end of this complicated journey, you will acknowledge the payment of The Debt with interest - especially your own.

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