The Debt: The Spy and the Gynecologist

This bracing political thriller is a welcome tonic for the end of a sluggish summer at the movies

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Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars as a retired secret agent in the espionage thriller The Debt

Americans rejoiced over the announced execution of Osama bin Laden and made anonymous heroes of the Navy SEAL Team 6 that pulled off the coup. Now imagine that, decades later, these agents are prominent citizens, bathing in the glory of their kill — when news comes to them that the al-Qaeda chief is still alive, in hiding all this time, and that he is ready to unmask the heroes who had, in fact, blown the mission, allowed the mass murderer to escape and faked evidence of his death. Do they let the truth emerge? Or do they send one of their members to find bin Laden and kill him, this time for real?

Transfer this fanciful scenario to Israel, turn bin Laden into a genocidal Nazi surgeon and the Team Sixers into a trio of Mossad spies, and you have the silhouette of director John Madden’s The Debt. Based on the 2007 Israeli drama Ha-Hov, and with a cast of laureled veterans (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson) and budding stars (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain), the movie addresses the moral ambiguity behind deadly affairs of state. When good people realize they haven’t been good enough, their consciences can nibble at them like rodents on a box of sugar.

In 1965, three Israeli intelligence agents — Rachel Singer (Chastain) and David Peretz (Worthington) and their slightly older boss Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) — go to East Berlin to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a gynecologist who in Hitler days was known as the Butcher of Birkenau for his experiments on female Jewish inmates. Rachel has the toughest, most intimate job: she must go to the clinic that Vogel now runs under a pseudonym and allow him to examine her so she can sedate and kidnap him. Vogel is the bad guy, no question, though the agents’ motives are more complicated (a love triangle), their espionage abilities untested. Still, at the beginning of the film we watch Rachel shoot Vogel as he tries to escape the trio. Case closed? No, just filed away under Half-Truths. We’re an hour into The Debtbefore we realize that seeing is not always believing.

It’s 1997, and the elder David (Ciarán Hinds) has just stepped in front of a bus rather than join Rachel (Mirren) and Stephan (Wilkinson) in a celebration of their old exploits. Wracked by remorse for her old lover, and determined to pay a debt both to David and to the mission that made them famous, Rachel goes on one last assignment. “When the legend becomes fact,” the newspaper man in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said, “print the legend.” Thirty-two years later, Rachel wants to make sure the legend is finally fact.

(Photos: Helen Mirren: On Stage and on Screen)

Filmed in early 2009, The Debt offers peeks at the pre-Avatar Worthington and Chastain before she became this summer’s Everywhere Girl in The Tree of Life and as the dotty young wife in The Help (she’s also in this fall’s Take Shelter and Texas Killing Fields). Here, Chastain seems too shivery and translucent to be even an embryonic version of Mirren — the toughest and sexiest, but mainly toughest, broad in movies; instead she suggests a cross between soft Julia Roberts and righteous Katrina vanden Heuvel. But she slips smartly into her scenes with the Nazi doctor, who is as tenacious as he is malicious. Swapping roles of predator and prey, they engage in confrontations that keep the tension percolating. Vogel’s gynecological examination of young Rachel, her feet in stirrups as he leans in and she tries to ensnare him, shows a woman at her most vulnerable, fraught and resolute.

The script, adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (who did Stardust and Kick-Ass) and rewritten by Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats and this fall’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), hopscotches nimbly enough across decades and time zones. And Madden (Shakespeare in Love) is expert at steering his gifted on-screen assembly. The Debt is a little too gray and stolid — by which we may simply mean too true to its complex milieu — to qualify as scintillating entertainment. But at the end of a summer in which anything like reality was banned from movie houses, this gnarly political thriller has a tonic effect. It’s a wakeup face slap for a medium that has spent too many warm-weather nights dreaming of superheroes and frat boys.