Film opens up infinite possibilities to the audience; the best are the what-ifs that transport us out and away from the narrative before us, into worlds of alternatives, with no debts at all to the reality and the history to which we daily pay our dues. It can be difficult to escape the burdens of our pasts, whether historic or personal. But to sleep, perchance to dream of a place where other choices create new and other lives is possible.
John Madden, the Academy Award nominated director of Shakespeare in Love, delves into the tricky landscape of the post-Holocaust world in The Debt, which explores the consequences of actions taken by a three-man team of Mossad agents in 1965, charged with extracting a notorious Nazi doctor, lurking in East Germany under a false name and identity, back to Israel for trial and inevitably swift justice. The young members involved in this undertaking are Rachel Singer (played by Jessica Chastain initially and 30 years later by Helen Mirren), David Peretz (Sam Worthington and later Ciaran Hinds) and finally team leader Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson). Seeing them during the time of the mission, a perilous situation made even more so by the inevitable romantic entanglements that arise, and then all those years later, when each has had to struggle to survive the repercussions of time and tide, generates all the drama needed to make The Debt a stirring, if at times obvious, thriller.
But deeper, behind the trappings, all the action-oriented business and the doomed romance, there is another, far more intriguing notion at play. I started thinking about that previously mentioned what-if scenario. What if instead of playing out a Jewish/Israeli revenge fantasy against the Nazis, I found myself imagining a world where black folks, African Americans could have stories and films of their own, thrills of turning the tables on slave owners or white supremacists without couching the action in blacksploitation fantasies; where the heroes didn’t have to be pimps and prostitutes, but could be agents and/or international officers with recognized global authority.
That is what films like The Debt and Munich offer (it should be noted that The Debt lacks the epic sprawl of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but it certainly wishes to be considered a companion piece to it). Very little needs to be done to let us know about the evil being pursued, so these films can dive right into the elaborate plots, the character traits of the heroes, the key miscues that endanger the missions, the waiting games and the twists. The Debt wallows a bit too long in these details because we already know the points by heart and have already begun unraveling the twist here before it completely reveals itself. We know it and, like the characters, we want to make it right. So we go along with the contemporary versions of the characters, walking the path with them, ready to settle the score no matter the final cost.
I find myself wishing that such films existed for African Americans. Alternative narratives or even truly inspired tales (stories based on or inspired by true events) where we were the agents of change righting the wrongs committed against us in the past. Even by the books thrillers like The Debt have a place. They provide a necessary emotional payoff that allows the target audience to walk away from the heavy burdens that remain in place in the present. (tt stern-enzi)