1. It's got speed, thump -- and reality.
In 1966, three young Mossad agents set out to kidnap a notorious Nazi perpetrator of medical atrocities -- "The Surgeon of Birkenau" -- who is working as an OB-GYN in East Berlin. In 1997, one of the trio dies a shocking death, and the other two re-examine what went on three decades before.
The whole movie is about the difficulty of making moral and political judgments when confronting evil. The back and forth cutting brings home exactly what so many action thrillers lack -- a sense that every action has a consequence.
The mission to East Berlin unfolds with psychological and ethical dimensions that add to the heart-pounding and sometimes heartbreaking tension; the team's kidnap-and-getaway attempt boasts the best timing of any suspense sequence we've seen this year.
2. Watch Helen Mirren act her heart out for director John Madden.
Half the reviews have declared surprise that "Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden could pull off a spy thriller. (The other half have compared it, often unfavorably, to "Munich" -- more on that later.) Why the shock? A moviemaker who shows the ability to bring crack timing and fluid storytelling to a costume comedy-drama should be able to carry off an espionage movie.
Furthermore, one of Madden's top early achievements was directing an episode in Series 4 of "Prime Suspect." That superb policier starred, of course, Mirren. In Madden's self-contained "Prime Suspect" entry, "The Lost Child," Mirren's Jane Tennison had to draw on her sad wisdom and gnarly empathy to unravel the case of a missing baby. So does Mirren's Rachel Singer as she struggles, in 1997, with the fall-out from the war-crime case she helped close in 1966.
How refreshing to see a genre film in which the director and lead actor know -- and nail -- the emotional center of each scene.
3. Watch Jessica Chastain match Mirren.
Mirren fans who go into this movie cold may get their backs up when they realize that another performer plays the star's character as a young woman. But any feelings of "Damn, I thought I was seeing a Helen Mirren movie" disappear when Jessica Chastain enters East Berlin and imbues the character in her youth with all the excitement and uncertainty of a splendid operative on her first field job.
In "The Help," as the "white-trash" housewife who learns to see through the false values of the upper-crust Junior League in Jackson, Mississippi, Chastain thrashed through her scenes with a beautiful awkwardness, as if her body were made of mismatched parts. In "The Debt" she's lithe and eloquent. The one female member of the Mossad team must subject herself to the Nazi doctor's gynecological examination. You can see her fear and mortification -- and her determination -- in Chastain's eyes, and when she finally drops her disguise, the performer expresses, in swift, galvanizing movements, the liberating power of the truth. These visits to the Nazi OB-GYN outdo the trip to the Nazi dentist in "Marathon Man."
But nothing is creepier than the moments when Jesper Christensen, as the doctor, toys with his captors. He seizes on the young woman's capacity to see the best in people -- even in a beast like the Surgeon of Birkenau. Chastain acts with ever sinew of her body. With a tiny hand gesture or small facial twitch, she lets us know just when he gets to her -- and each time you feel it with a pang. (One of her partners, played by the estimable Sam Worthington, lets the doctor get to him even worse.)
4. Jesper Christensen deserves the Oscar that Christolph Waltz won.
Waltz was shrewd but repetitive as the evil Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds." Christensen is uncanny as this movie's Mengele figure, a man who is ultra-perceptive and chillingly detached. He's skillful at faking humanity, and merciless at psychological warfare. Chastain, in disguise, tells him that her mother died in the war. After he learns that she's in the Mossad, he realizes that she was telling the truth -- and that, indeed, her mother perished in the Holocaust. He manipulates her the way Hannibal Lecter did Clarise, but without an ounce of ham.
With this character, Christensen and director Madden dig beneath the banalities of "the banality of evil." They make us look a monster in the face -- and see how well he mimics a man. 5. This film is so much more rewarding than "Munich."
The starry collaboration of director Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony ('Angels in America") Kushner on "Munich" (2005) blinded critics who hailed it as a masterpiece instead of seeing it for what it was -- an inert, lifeless melodrama laced with pseudo-humanistic propaganda.
"Munich" was ostensibly about the aftermath to the Palestinian terrorist slaughter of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic squad during the 1972 Summer Games. But it existed mostly to imply that when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir empowered the Mossad to retaliate by eliminating 11 Palestinian leaders, her decision furthered that opinion-page cliche, "the cycle of violence." The dialogue was tendentious: full of self-conscious anguish over whether Mossad actions would tarnish the mantle of Jewish righteousness.
The makers of "The Debt" (based on the Israeli movie, "Ha-Hov'), may have learned from Spielberg's stumbling. They make no sweeping conclusions. They never commit the error of equating debatable Mossad tactics with atrocities. Their film is about the difficulty of reacting to abominations in ways that are morally and politically unassailable or even justifiable. Can you try to bring a filthy beast to justice and keep your hands clean? They allow moviegoers to be uncertain about what is right and wrong. They catalyze discussions in the audience as deftly as they detonate suspense scenes.