Well, this one's about movies. A friend arranged with me to go out last night to a restaurant he found a while ago and we both like... imagine a gourmet greasy-spoon. Sandwiches and pub fare, meals largely under $10, but Beamers and Lexuses parked out front. I am not joking. Anyway, movies. I suggested we take in a movie afterward, and he approved the choice I threw at him. Back to this in a moment.
In the lead up to the movie, there were promos for five others. One sucked; one might be worth seeing, but to my surprise, three really peaked my interest. Of the three, two include George Clooney, two include Philip Seymour Hoffman, and one includes Brad Pitt. These are The Descendants, The Ides of March. and Moneyball. It's been a long, long time since I've haunted the theatres, but it looks like there are some solid cinematic reasons to line up and grab a seat this fall. I'm mostly writing these down here so I don't forget.
Okay... the movie we went to see was The Debt. It's the story of three former Massad agents who undertook a mission in the mid-1960s, and how it is affecting their lives in the late 1990s. Helen Mirren stars in it, and for me, that means you can't go wrong.
Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens.
The movie opens in 1997 when the Sarah, the daughter of two of agents (now divorced) is launching a book about her parents' mission, the story of which is a failed success: failing to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice, her mother, Rachel, managed to shoot him and prevent his escape. Things begin to go wrong when the third agent, about to be driven to the book launch, opts to step in front of a truck instead.
The action moves to 1965, Rachel, David, and Stefan, the agents in question, are sent to East Berlin to complete the investigation of a suspected Nazi criminal, Vogel, the "Surgeon of Birkenau", and, if the target proves to be him, to kidnap him and return him to Israel to stand trial. Rachel and David pretend to be a married couple trying to conceive as a ruse to get close to their target, who is now a gynecologist. Rachel and David develop feelings for one another but David balks, and Rachel turns to Stefan.
Meanwhile, the doctor's identity is confirmed, and the plan goes into action. Rachel injects the doctor during an examination and, in the guise of an ambulance crew coming to the rescue, David and Stefan abscond with the doctor. The plan is use a "ghost station", one of the pre-WWII transit stations West German trains may pass through but not stop at, to hustle Vogel out of East Berlin to Tempelhof Airport and out of Germany. The plan goes wrong, an East German border guard is killed, and three have to retreat to their flat with Vogel and hope for some other means of getting out.
In the interim, Vogel works on his captors, causing tension between them, and finally manages to free himself. But this time, we learn that Rachel did not manage to rise and shoot him at the last moment. Vogel escaped. The three realize that Vogel will simply disappear. Deciding that Israel "cannot be seen to fail" as a means to justify their own failure, they agree to say that Rachel shot Vogel to prevent his escape, and that they disposed of the body. And so the story goes for 30 years, the foundation of their reputations and careers.
This doesn't sit well with David. After a few years, and a long affair with Rachel, he announces his is leaving. 25 years later, he returns, and reveals to Rachel that Vogel has apparently turned up in mental hospital in Kiev. Hoping to relieve his burden, he suggests telling the truth. Rachel argues that the fiction has to be maintained for her daughter's sake. The following day, David kills himself.
Stefan, wheelchair-bound, convinces Rachel to go to Kiev and murder Vogel before he can talk to a reporter who has taken an interest in the strange old man's story. Through some astute intelligence work, she locates the man, but realizes he simply is a crazy old man and not Vogel. She phones Stefan to tell him so, but also that she has reached the same conclusion as David. She hangs up on him and leaves a note for the reporter, who is only steps behind her, that tells all.
And there the movie should have ended. But it doesn't. At this point, the script was apparently hijacked by high school boys, because at the last moment, Rachel sees someone disappear through a door, and follows to an abandoned part of the hospital, where she is attacked with scissors by none other than Vogel himself, whom she, in turn, dispatches with the syringe of poison she had brought with her for the mission. The last 90 seconds of the movie take a wonderful film about truth, redemption, keeping the faith with friends, and a mature worldly recognition that sometimes the bad guy gets away, and tosses it instead to an audience with a colouring book appreciation of morality. What a shame. What a real shame. It is the fatal flaw in an otherwise exceptional and starkly honest story.