Is the truth actually what happened or what everyone believes happened? The Debt attempts to answer the question and almost succeeds if it were not for some very poor screenwriting. It is 1966 and Mossad has finally tracked down the infamous Birkenau surgeon, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen). Dr. Vogel is very high on the list of Nazi war criminals the Israelis are hunting down because of the atrocities he committed at his concentration camp. He would deliberately blind children to see if he could change eye color and cut off hands and feet and reattach them on the wrong limbs to see what happened.
The spy team assigned to kidnap him and bring him to justice are team leader Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain). Their story is told in flashback and the first half of it is absolutely riveting. Rachel poses as a woman with fertility issues and becomes a patient of Dr. Vogel who is hiding as an OBGYN in the Soviet sector of East Berlin. The tension during the examination room scenes are the highlight of the film with both Rachel and the doctor verbally maneuvering to ensure the other person is who they think they are.
After a convincing action sequence, the story abruptly turns from a kidnap/escape scenario into a hostage situation. This is one of the points where the film just falls apart. Mossad and their agents are the best in the entire world at their art. There is no way such highly trained agents would fall victim to and resort to the amateur hour theatrics which come with the hostage sequence. The script is riddled with illogical and bizarre events which only occur during the film’s most important sequences for some reason.
Fast forward to 1997 and now older Rachel (Helen Mirren) is at her daughter’s book release party which describes the team’s successful mission to Berlin all those years ago. Older Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) is also around for the recollections. The 1997 scenes are adeptly written and filmed, especially scenes with Mirren. Tom Wilkerson is just along for the ride. Unfortunately, the movie’s climax is one of the most preposterous situations a decent film has been saddled with. It is so ridiculous that a two hour meeting with the writers would still not convince me this was the best way to resolve the story’s actions and issues. The mood and atmosphere are destroyed and the audience collectively shook their heads in disbelief at the mockery on screen.
Screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats) adapted this screenplay from an earlier film. The Debt’s first hour is quite good with adept flow from 1997 to 1966 and the truly suspenseful scenes between Chastain and Christensen. However, their handling of the hostage situation and the absurd climax are what really hurt this film and makes the audience shake their heads with the ‘Oh, what might have been’ lament.