John Madden's The Debt opens in 1997, as Israeli journalist Sarah Gold (Romi Aboulafia) debuts a book chronicling the heroic 1966 capture of Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) by three young Mossad agents. Two of them are her parents: Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), whose unease is underscored by an angry scar running across one cheek, and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car bomb in an unrelated incident. The third, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds), has just stepped in front of an oncoming truck.
As it quickly becomes apparent, there's a secret lurking behind the incident, for which all three agents have been treated as national heroes. In its longest and best chunk, The Debt jumps back to tell the true story of what happened, as the agents hole up in an East Berlin apartment practicing combat moves and love triangulations, awaiting their cues to strike. (The younger versions of the characters are played by Jessica Chastain as Rachel, Marton Csokas as Stephan, and Sam Worthington as David.)
When their plan to smuggle Vogel out of the country goes awry, the trio winds up stuck with him in the apartment, taking shifts guarding and feeding him, slowly unraveling as they await orders and Vogel begins to taunt and manipulate. The situation erupts, lies are told, and 30 years later, it comes back to haunt them—but with Stephan handicapped and David dead, it falls to Rachel to "finish it," and The Debt's finale sees the aging agent settling the score and coming to terms with a cover-up that has defined her life.
As an espionage thriller, The Debt is suitably tense and violent, though it lacks any truly revelatory action scenes or plot devices, including a squandered opportunity for Vogel's character to reveal something more nuanced and human than unrepentant hate-spewing. In contrast, the agents are lavishly humanized to the point of appearing borderline civilian. We're used to seeing secret agents onscreen as quasi superheroes who rarely fail, and the contrast is unique if not exactly inspiring. The Debt has plenty of riveting, pulse-quickening scenes, and it's worth watching for its entertainment value alone, but like its bungling protagonists, it stops short of being truly heroic.