"What is the line between justice and vengeance?" asks Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies. "What's the exact burden of guilt when that line is crossed? When does righteousness, and particularly self-righteousness, get in the way of doing what's actually right? These questions were explored pretty trenchantly, at least by this reviewer's lights, in Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich, in which crack Israeli intelligence operatives tracked down and wiped out the parties behind the massacre of athletes at the 1972 Olympics. And Mossad, and undercover operations, also lie at the heart of The Debt, a new film from director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) that explores the same questions. This fictional tale aspires to pack a big sting, and it works to an extent, but as a whole the picture is too overdetermined and melodramatic and sentimental in spite of itself to put its ideas and convictions across as powerfully as it would like."
Imagine, suggests Time's Richard Corliss, that, decades from now, it turns out Osama bin Laden is alive, "and that he is ready to unmask the heroes who had, in fact, blown the mission, allowed the mass murderer to escape and faked evidence of his death. Do they let the truth emerge? Or do they send one of their members to find bin Laden and kill him, this time for real? Transfer this fanciful scenario to Israel, turn bin Laden into a genocidal Nazi surgeon and the Team Sixers into a trio of Mossad spies, and you have the silhouette of director John Madden's The Debt. Based on the 2007 Israeli drama Ha-Hov, and with a cast of laureled veterans (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson) and budding stars (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain), the movie addresses the moral ambiguity behind deadly affairs of state. When good people realize they haven't been good enough, their consciences can nibble at them like rodents on a box of sugar."
"In terms of suspense," writes Nick Schager in Slant, "The Debt is an efficiently gritty saga, as workmanlike in its mood and pacing as its aesthetics are suitably gray and grim. Its performances are likewise resourceful and affecting… [exuding] a complicated mess of responsibility, guilt, sacrifice, revenge, and regret. The problem that arises, however, is that those notions, both on an individual and historical-political scale, remain so secondary to the clockwork mechanics of the two-time-period script that Madden's latest never amounts to more than a competently grave The Boys from Brazil-style cloak-and-dagger yarn."
"The labors of the cast help to make The Debt a compact, reasonably clever and sometimes piquant entertainment, but they also make you aware that it could have been more," agrees AO Scott in the New York Times.
"After its predecessor Killshot got a cursory limited release before being scuttled off to DVD and the film before that, Proof, hobbled in and out of theaters, The Debt is director John Madden’s first film in more than a decade to receive a theatrical run of more than 1600 screens," notes Todd Gilchrist at the Playlist, "but an overbearing sense of self-importance undermines its box office potential, much less the effectiveness of skillful performances by a mostly-talented cast."
Margy Rochlin profiles Jessica Chastain for the NYT; ST VanAirsdale interviews her for Movieline. Brett Smiley chats with Helen Mirren for Vulture.
Update, 8/31: "The rhythms of The Debt are emphatic and obvious, but at least the Israeli cult of heroism gets a side-swipe fuck-you," writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. More from Peter Martin (Twitch), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B), Alison Willmore (Movieline, 6/10) and Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 2/5). Gayle Macdonald talks with Madden for the Globe and Mail.
Updates, 9/1: Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times: "Overall it reads as a sort of practice run at high seriousness from writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, of Kick-Ass and X-Men First Class, and Peter Straughan, of The Men Who Stare at Goats. And in a way it's OK if they need more practice; here, the script matters mostly for its stewardship of conceptual clarity. A more direct description of moral ambiguity we could not ask for, or want."
"While the script sometimes bites off more than Madden can handle in terms of juggling flashbacks, its central section works as an unpretentious thriller," writes Steve Erickson in the Nashville Scene. "In the US, Jews get to be funny and smart, but they have to stay away from guns. Guilt trips and all, the ass-kicking Jews of The Debt are a refreshing change."
Updates, 9/2: "Maybe the Israeli version (which I haven't seen) had so much psychological resonance that you could overlook the absurdities to come," writes New York's David Edelstein, "but The Debt, after a gripping first half, turns into one howler after another. And yet it's still gripping."
For Laura Kern, writing in Film Comment, "the film delivers both as a love story and as an old-fashioned espionage thriller that no amount of implausibility or mixed accents can spoil."