Title: Operation Finale
Director: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent
Runtime: 2 Hours 2 Minutes
What It Is: This gripping true story follows the 1960 covert assignment of legendary Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) as he infiltrates Argentina and captures Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the Nazi officer who masterminded the transportation logistics that brought millions of innocent Jews to their deaths in concentration camps.
What We Think: Though it’s framed as a thriller, Operation Finale isn’t much of an action picture. Not that it needs to be: That ground has already been covered by at least three television movies about Eichmann’s brazen 1960 abduction. And though Weitz has worked contentedly with and without his brother Paul in a bunch of films, here the director seems ill-at-ease with the tight structure and staccato rhythms of the thriller… but it’s Isaac’s Malkin, who personifies an Israel still raw fifteen years after the pain of the Holocaust. The movie is littered with flashbacks imagining possible deaths for Malkin’s sister, about whom all he knows is that she died in a forest with her children, possibly on Eichmann’s orders.
Yet it’s in the movie’s lengthy middle section of verbal sparring between Malkin and Eichmann that this comes into its own. During a ten-day flight delay, Malkin must force or persuade Eichmann to sign off on his willingness to be transported to Israel to face what he regards as a show trial. Kingsley has spent most of his career honing a variety of sphinxes, and here he shifts the mask around skilfully as Eichmann, after insisting that he’s just a prosperous businessman named Ricardo Klement, switches gears to advance the infamously slippery claim that he was not a monster but merely a cog in the Final Solution machine, “chained to my desk twenty hours a day.” That won’t wash with Malkin. Their quietly lethal war of words, aided by flashbacks of Eichmann’s active involvement in the execution of his orders, foreshadows the real-life trial we glimpse only with the end credits, where the notion that Eichmann was merely a public servant following orders was forcefully overturned.
To its credit, the film also offers a reprimand to the sentimental but commonly held notion that the Nazis were an inhuman aberration. In the sheer range of his capacities, from worrying about the safety of his family to supervising over a blueprint for the obliteration of an entire people, Kingsley’s Eichmann shows himself all too human. One only wishes that the movie had not undermined this painful truth by resorting to the vulgar assumption that, having dispatched one source of the trauma inflicted on the Jewish people, its victims experienced closure.
Our Grade: C+, The action is slow, and the plot doesn’t probe deeply enough into the complex history of the characters to offer anything truly gripping. However, the middle act, where Isaac and Kingsley are given space to debate Eichmann’s crimes, gives the film some intrigue. Isaac simmers as a man motivated by a personal sense of retribution, whereas Kingsley is staggeringly good as a man justifying the unthinkable. The committed leads make Operation Finale worth watching, even though it never really gets to the core of its complicated moral debate. Claude Lanzmann, whose authoritative documentary Shoah is the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of the Holocaust, would likely have hated the reductive Hollywood shorthand in which avenging his sister’s death is Malkin’s reason for bringing Eichmann to trial.