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Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Debt


Be it Adam Sandler's flying kicks in "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" or Steven Spielberg's national vendetta in "Munich", the American movie going public likes its Israelis taking names and kicking ass. To Hollywood, Israelis better all be Mossad agents going after terrorists or old retired Nazis, because anything without that kind of vengeful pedigree generates little interest. (Imagine a movie about Israelis living side by side with Palestinians, and growing up with a constant fear of existential demolition; something that fascinating would never get passed the pitch session).

The Hollywood depiction of Israelis is often reduced to kitsch. Sure, "Munich" is a typically poetic Spielberg film with hints of duality (who are the real murderers?). But in the end Spielberg knew that the apolitical route was the way to go because no matter how Americans may feel about the Middle East conflict, placed opposite terrorists and Nazis -- humanities eternal villains -- Israelis are always on the side of good. Not that I have a problem with that per se, only, Hollywood movies love to milk the drama out of a nation's deepest wounds and darkest fears without ever even attempting to understand what those may be.

"The Debt" is a remake of an Israeli film, so it already has an advantage in the ideology department. Yet, the Hollywood treatment is so thorough in this undertaking that any understanding of the Israeli people or their culture was lost in the process of translation.

It's true, a spy thriller is a spy thriller and "The Debt" is -- at face value -- a taut and exciting one. In 1997, three former Mossad operatives -- Rachel, Stefan and David -- are forced to relive the 1966 mission that made their careers, after Rachel and Stefan's daughter writes a book chronicling the event. It involved them infiltrating Soviet controlled East Berlin and kidnapping a former Nazi doctor -- known as "the surgeon of Birkenau" -- in an attempt to sneak him back to Israel for trial and execution. As the book recalls, he managed to escape captivity in Berlin and Rachel was forced to assassinate him. Despite this blip in the mission, the three are lauded for their heroism nationwide. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play them and we can sort of tell from their early performances that there is something fishy going on with their story.

In flashbacks we watch the actual mission unfold. Jessica Chastain plays young Rachel. Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play David and Stefan. After they cross the border -- and the inevitable love triangle plays out -- they locate the fiend, and we get to watch the very Jewish Rachel get "examined" by the old bastardly anti-Semite who's now a gynecologist (yikes!). She reacts to his cold fingers with a syringe to the jugular in one awesome scene and then they try to sneak the comatose lug across the border in another. When that goes haywire, they're stuck with the Kinski-eyed prick in a dilapidated, leaky apartment and each goes a little bonkers with cabin fever, cooped up all day with an evil, manipulative kraut. Eventually, we get to see for ourselves what really happened in Berlin.

To complete the Hollywood transformation, each actor puts on their very best Israeli accent, and I have my theory that their dialogue was cut down significantly because of it. Hey, as long as they don't all sound stone-cold Midwestern like in "Valkyrie" the audience shouldn't be too bothered. But I guess director John Madden figured Mirren's dainty Queen-speak popped a little too much for his liking. Mine, too. Especially considering the movie's core character is Rachel. Mirren is fine, but Chastain is radiant. She's a force on the screen -- playing a graceful, tougher-than-she-looks heroine whose innocent beauty can't mask the blood on her hands or fear in her heart. Angelic and childlike in "The Tree of Life" and loveably giggly in "The Help", Chastain is a versatile talent who is here to stay. The male performances waver between anger and brooding, respectively.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, the film is an electrifying one. Though we're never quite invested enough in the characters or their conflict to get any kind of emotional pay off. This is sterile fun. On deeper examination, the film gets even creakier; the theme is clearly duty colliding with truth, personal honor versus national. Pungent moralist quandaries for its characters, however, "The Debt" doesn't consider the implications of their decision. The final, nail-biting action scene of redemption and justice is irresponsible storytelling because it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about the people it represents. Any choice on the part of the characters other than ones promoting national preservation and selfless sacrifice are cultural falsities. "The Debt" thinks it's about characters coming clean and freeing their souls. It's not. It's about characters erroneously reflecting a zeitgeist and national mentality that believed Zionist conservation should come before the very lives of its citizens, let alone their inner demons.

"The Debt" wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be an accessible Hollywood thriller that ponders big questions. Ultimately, those questions are only there as counterfeit higher meaning because there is no actual thought behind them. At least Zohan's flying kicks weren't meant for anything more than kicking ass, and they didn't pretend to be.

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