Premiering this weekend on Cinemax was last year’s espionage thriller, “The Debt”.
Starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain, “The Debt” is the story of three Mossad agents dealing with the consequences of a key operation from their younger days. A portion of the narrative set in current day is intercut with flashbacks of a mission the trio undertook in East Germany in the mid 1960s.
The three were charged with getting their hands on a Nazi doctor, “The Surgeon of Birkenau”, who performed biological experiments on humans during WWII and returning him to Israel for trial.
Things did not go as planned.
Chastain and Mirren play the same Mossad operative, Rachel, at different points in her life. Chastain portrays her during the critical operation, while Mirren plays her 30 years after retiring from the agency. Chastain’s Rachel is dedicated, courageous, idealistic. She’s well-trained in martial arts, and willing to risk her own life for the sake of their mission. Mirren’s Rachel is older, weary. She’s lived with the consequences of that particular assignment for at least 30 years, and it has worn on her.
The mission, which Rachel undertook with two other operatives, David and Stefan, was to infiltrate East Germany and capture a man named Dieter Vogel – “The Surgeon of Birkenau”. During World War II, Vogel (Jesper Christensen) conducted brutal biological experiments on human subjects. Now the Israelis wish him captured and brought to Israel for trial. Vogel is currently working as a gynecologist… in order to approach him, Rachel poses as a patient and undergoes his examinations. She is exposed to him as a person can be as they do the espionage dance with each other. She takes pictures to confirm his identity, he asks probing questions out of his own paranoia, to reassure himself of his own safety.
It’s a fascinating cat and mouse game, but it gets even more intense once Vogel is captured. When plan A fails and the three operatives are unable to sneak Vogel from the country as planned, they’re forced to keep him captive in their safe house until they can come up with plan B. It’s there that Vogel begins to use his forked tongue to seed discord amongst the three operatives… angering them, seeding doubt in them, pitting them against each other.
When the situation spins out of the agents control, they make a decision that they will have to live with the rest of their lives. One that will have profound repercussions for them later.
“The Debt” is an engrossing espionage drama. It’s small-scale, with the focus solidly on people and their actions. The characters are all extremely well crafted and well portrayed. The stakes are high, both personally and professionally, throughout. The non linear narrative works wonderfully, serving to create suspense by showing you the weight of what happened prior to fully revealing what happened. Thus as the viewer is taken through the events, they already have importance, and the tension is thereby heightened. The acting is excellent across the board, as is the directing. There’s just enough style to supplement, but never enough to distract.
It’s a first-rate thriller, and highly recommended… especially seeing as it’s begun its cable rounds now.