Following the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials, many surviving Nazis fled Europe. They went into hiding or sometimes found support from similar-minded governments. Chris Weitz’ Operation Finale begins with the Mossad during the 1950s. Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) knocks on a door in Hungary, sending the family inside in a frenzy. They hide Nazi reading material, but Malkin and his cohorts already know who they have caught.
At least, they think they do. They know for certain that the patriarch of the house is a former Nazi soldier. Whether that man is actually on their “list” is questionable, but they kill him anyway.
Malkin has hesitations about this method, particularly given the son watching through the window and the flashbacks he has to a yet-to-be-named woman. He is interested, then, when the eponymous operation crosses his proverbial desk.
The Mossad has reason to believe that they have discovered the location of Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the man who planned the construction and distribution of people to the concentration camps. Malkin is one of a handful of agents asked to retrieve Eichmann and bring him back to Jerusalem alive to stand trial.
Today, Eichmann is perhaps most famous for being the impetus for Hannah Arendt’s writings on the “banality of evil.” Mostly, however, Operation Finale is concerned with the pot boiler aspect of finding, capturing, and coaxing out a signature from Eichmann.
This is one of the few things that makes Weitz’ film unique. Many films take place during World War II. It is more interesting to have a contrast to this, in which we are situated a decade-plus out from the events of the Holocaust. Creating a terse drama out of the diaspora of racism post-World War II not only is a fresh take, but it also feels more contemporary. Early on in the film, Eichmann and the other Nazi escapees in Argentina are depicted as assimilated to society, their racism an undercurrent that is just below the surface. This depiction is not the simplistic, mindless racism found in most fiction films, and thus it comes off as a scary threat.
That said, Eichmann’s is the only truly intriguing depiction of Nazi in the film. This makes sense, as Eichmann is an endlessly enticing object of historical curiosity. Arendt’s writings on the subject are some of the most compelling historical texts in history. Kingsley embodies the role as a particular, routine-dedicated busy body. Even captured, he remains postured stiff as a board. He continues to speak deliberately and with empty semantics. Frankly, he is an adequately frustrating personality.
The early acts of this film function as a thriller. The operation has small windows in which action has to succeed in spite of many possible obstacles. And these scenes have tension. It may not be white-knuckled, but it is engaging. What is lacking here is a sense of character, and this short-coming is only slightly remedied in the latter half of the film.
This second half takes place almost entirely within the building where the Mossad agents have Eichmann imprisoned awaiting a flight out of Argentina. The short windows are replaced by a single, longer window. The many possible obstacles are replaced by a single, concrete obstacle. The agents need Eichmann to sign a document agreeing to be tried for his crimes in Israel, in spite of his insistence that he should be tried in Germany where the crimes were committed.
In many ways, this half is superior. The tension and stakes may alleviate slightly, at least until the final act. But the tension that we do receive becomes broader. It becomes conversational. There is a key juxtaposition between the Argo-reminiscent infiltration operation that feels pulled from a spy film and the stewing that takes place in the house once the target is captured. The latter shows the potential danger of rhetoric. The film thematically ties the events of the film with contemporary society by showing just how easy it is to commit subterfuge through purposefully slippery diction.
Characterization remains a blatant issue. Characters have very little interiority and mainly function as bodies that populate the house. A half-cooked and entirely unnecessary romantic subplot between two characters shoves Melanie Laurent’s medical consultant Hanna Elian into what is almost a literal corner. Isaac’s character kind of takes over the film, despite the fact that it isn’t his job to do the things that he decides to do. Michael Aronov plays with an enthralling intensity the interrogator of Eichmann, yet Isaac does most of the interrogating.
This would be fine if Isaac was the hero that the film writes him to be. Everyone working the operation were heroes, but the film specifically pulls him out of the group. Aside from the flashes of death that haunt Malkin, Isaac’s character is not shown to be more compelling than the others. That the other characters are sidelined until the expedient climax is a questionable choice, because it is hard to see what we are meant to take away from Isaac’s character in particular.
On its surface, Operation Finale appears conventional. Mainly, it is. The espionage elements have been more seamlessly executed before. The dramatic weight of the World War II subject matter has been more effectively weighty before. Kingsley’s performance and the ease by which his character talks around his crimes, never accepting any guilt for them, is what stands out.
Operation Finale: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)