I was having a conversation about Citizen Kane (1941) recently with a group of people who were about to see it for the first time and they asked me why I believed, as I do, that it is the finest picture ever made. I said it is the perfect combination of story and storytelling. The most important element in making a good movie is having a good story, but have you ever been at a party or in conversation and someone is telling a story and someone else says, “No, have Brian tell it. He tells it better.” That’s directing. Yes, Citizen Kane has an excellent story but it’s also told better than any other movie. The Debt has a good story, it’s just not all that well told.
The Debt gives us Helen Mirren as Rachel, an ex-Mossad agent who has been hailed as a hero for the last 30 years for killing “The Surgeon of Birkenau” on a mission in the ‘60s. Now, it’s the ‘90s and her daughter has finished a book about the mission and has been on a tour praising her mother as her inspiration. Mirren attends these events and looks off into the distance as if something is amiss. Perhaps something is! In flashbacks, we see the team on the mission with Rachel now being played by Jessica Chastain. Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas are the rest of the team (played as older men by Ciarin Hinds and Tom Wilkinson respectively). We see them find their in-hiding charge, abduct him and try to smuggle him out of the country. Then we find out the truth; Rachel didn’t kill him, he escaped and is presumably still alive. The three of them decided to live a lie and take the credit, assuming that their target would have to give himself up in order to expose them. Now they catch wind that their target is going to come out of hiding and Mirren is expected to get back in action to prevent the truth from coming out.
This is a pretty good yarn, but director John Maddon turns it into a pretty good yawn instead. The film plays with chronology, but not in a satisfying way, but in a way that deflates any tension or confuses the audience. The interpersonal relationships amongst the team is mishandled, which is usually a strength of Maddon’s, and we end up rooting against what the film argues should happen. I’m being too hard on what is an above-board movie, especially early scenes involving the mission, but it could have been better.