Monday, September 26, 2011

High Interest Indeed

On paper this is a film I expected to like: Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds in a spy thriller with a Nazi twist? Shhhhhya!

But the latest from John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare In Love), the Debt, fails to fully hit its mark, though I'm struggling with why this is so. Mirren, Wilkenson and Hinds play a trio of former agents for Israel's Mossad (a national intelligence agency equivalent perhaps to the US CIA). In 1966, the story goes, the trio is tasked with locating the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, known as "The Butcher of Birkenau," who is living in East Berlin. From their safehouse, the plan is to kidnap Vogel and shuttle him past very tight border security (as in shoot-to-kill tight) to the West to face trial. That sounds gripping enough.

The story is being told from near-present day when all three agents are old and no longer in the service. Since the events of 1966, one of the trio has disappeared, another is injured from a subsequent mission, and the last, after a quieter life as a speaker and national heroine, is again in the public eye when her daughter writes and promotes a book about her mother's activities three decades ago. But from the outset we sense there's something fishy with the official narrative. After the filmic depiction of the kidnapping that opens the film (the story the public knows), we return to 1966 and replay the events as they actually happened, and we explore the human dynamics that inevitably come into play in such an endeavor as an extended kidnapping of a high-profile target (especially a Nazi target, who, as we all know, intrinsically has Hannibal-Lecter-like powers of psychological manipulation).

Despite the juicy setup, there are a couple things that bother me here. Because of the 30 year time lapse, different actors are cast to play the Mossad trio for the '66 and '97 sequences. The choice of actors is beyond criticism: Mirren, Wilkenson and Hinds are portrayed as youngsters by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, and they are all superb, all of them. But the story cuts back and forth and back and forth such that it is impossible not to wonder about the business of two different actors trying to portray the same person. Three times over.  (Indeed, it took me a long time to figure out which young guy was which old guy.) This is a device that rarely works for me, though I cannot suggest a better alternative. All three older actors are too old to pull off characters who are 30 years younger, and the younger ones too young to play old folks. So I accept that Madden has done the best he can, but it's an irremediable problem I fear.

And while the film does due diligence in bringing a sense of urgency and consequence to the original kidnapping (and subsequent events), I found it hard to buy very far into whatever disaster would befall the group given a failure at any point. You don't come to care a great deal about any of the characters, and death and misery and injustice and horror are everywhere in the aftermath of WWII. After accepting that Vogel is a monster who deserves to die--an easy enough precept with high ranking Nazis--it's difficult to get too worked up if their mission fails and he, doubtless like many other officials who did very odious things during the Nazi reign, slips away into anonymity. The battle to find the monsters will be ongoing. The agents' honor and the dignity of the fledgling state of Israel are trotted out as further straws for the camel's back, but alas it doesn't rise to more than a middle-weight load for me. Maybe I've become accustomed to my spy thrillers holding all of humanity or the Earth itself in jeopardy. This is more a personal story about the agents, and if we don't really connect with them then it's harder to connect with their story.

The film's last chapter, the one that really connects the early story with the present day, has something of the potboiler flavor I expected as I entered the theater. Helen Mirren again proves herself a goddess who can do no wrong (a pity we don't see more of the equally-brilliant Tom Wilkinson), and the story leaves off on a properly unsatisfactory note. So high marks for ambition and I'm glad I saw it, and I might see it again. But I expected something a little different.

Grade: B-

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