"The Debt": American Remake of Israeli Film Opens This Week
The long awaited "The Debt" opens this Wednesday in NY, and premieres tonight at The JCC in Manhattan to a sold out crowd. This film was one of the most anticipated films that fell through the cracks of the closing of Miramax Films. This high profile film was in limbo for many months after the closing of Disney's art-house distribution wing. It finally landed in the capable hands of Focus Films. When I first saw the Original Israeli version of The Debt (Entitled Ha-hov) at The Jerusalem Film Festival in 2007, I remember thinking - this film is too Hollywood for Israel. Indeed, this is the first major Israeli film to be remade as a full fledged Hollywood film. The American version of the debt has a brilliant cast and crew. Helen Mirren very appropriately steps into the role of Sarah Singer - originally played by Israel's queen of stage and screen - Gila Almagor. Other stars include: Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation) the great Tom Wilkinson, and the emerging summer favorite Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, The Help).
The Debt is directed by John Madden of Shakespeare in Love fame, who creates a perfect film with suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The film follows the story of a group of Mossad members in the 1960's who are on a mission to catch an ex-Nazi and bring him back to Israel for Justice. The mission goes wrong and the Mossad agents need to overcome surprising obstacles, some of which continue to haunt the Mossad agents in present day.
The Debt plays off of many Hollywood classics. Jesper Christensen plays the ex-Nazi and gives an Oscar worthy performance. When the mission goes south, the Mossad agents are held up in an apartment with a legendary ruthless torturer. The interaction with the ex-Nazi is reminiscent of the Boys from Brazil, and even has some elements of Hannibal Lector. The days in the apartment bonds the agents and creates classic tensions between the young Mossad-nick's. The story nods to Adolf Eichmann's infamous capture as well as to the character of the Nazi Dr. Mengele who tortured many Jews with his experiments and managed to escape the war. Israel's Mossad continuously attempted to capture this Nazi at large. The Debt plays with iconic character types to create tension, but beneath the surface is a statement that adds a new layer of depth to Hollywood depictions.
The true brilliance of the film comes with the story twist that brings the characters together in present day to defend the legend of their mission. The underlying theme of this film is the breaking down of myths. Israel is a country brought up on legends of heroism. Every school child learns stories and myths of bravery and sacrifice. Israel is probably best known for its strong security forces and well trained covert operatives, with the top level being The Mossad. The Mossad is branded as the world's leading ruthless secret service agents and its reputation is based on the myths of classic missions. But in a world where the truth behind legends is subjective, often at a closer look, myths fall apart.
The success of Israel's leading military and security is not due to large numbers or huge budgets, it is actually an entire system based on ingenuity and deterrence. Despite the Mossad's legendary successful missions, the Mossad often botches missions due to human error. I often think that some of these missions are sabotaged on purpose. How would the world know and fear the Mossad if they never got caught? Sometimes not going under the radar is a more powerful tool. The Debt deals with a country filled with nationalistic pride that like many countries, is based on myths. As Israel matures, the young generation is reconstructing many of these myths and taking a look at the truth behind the legend.
Another layer of the film that is internationally relevant is the question of ethical espionage. How do ethical societies deal with prisoners in the case of secret missions? Often in our world, missions end with the aganets being the Judge and Jury. 007 is famouse for his lisence to kill. Often the order of shoot to kill is given when after a known asalent. in today's world, one that is hopefully very different than that of the Holocaust, can we still convict peop[le for those horrific crimes? The Debt confronts this etihcal dilemma.
The Hollywood version of The Debt works both as an action thriller and as a vehicle for taking a deeper look at the stories we are told, and the myths that form our society. Do not miss this film!