Despite two incredible lead performances from Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, this dramatization of the Mossad extradition of Adolf Eichmann feels a bit too safe.
In 1960, a group of Mossad and Shin Bet agents, let by Peter Malkin, traveled to Argentina on an undercover mission to capture SS administrator Adolf Eichmann, dubbed the “Architect of the Final Solution,” and bring him back to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. It’s a compelling story filled with disguises, sedation and subterfuge – which makes it a shame that Operation Finale manages to squeeze so little tension out of its retelling.
It’s still a little confusing why this story was put in the hands of Chris Weitz (the director of, among other things, the second Twilight movie and American Pie), but perhaps it’s a personal one for him. And it’s not as though he’s incapable of making solid films; About a Boy remains a classic, and for what it’s worth, Operation Finale is competently directed. He’s certainly got enough help from Javier Aguirresarobe’s sumptuous, amber-tinged cinematography, and a deceptively jaunty, xylophone-heavy score from Alexandre Desplat that helps to sell the spy-film intrigue of the proceedings. From a purely formal standpoint, Operation Finale is quite handsomely made.
Perhaps the major problem with Operation Finale is that it wants so desperately to be a tense spy film, a mix of Munich and Argo, but without the teeth of the former or the humor of the latter. The team – led by volatile spymaster Malkin (Oscar Isaac, who co-produced the film), and supported by a heist-worthy team of specialists including Mélanie Laurent, Nick Kroll and others, hatch plans, improvise when things go wrong, and otherwise go through all the spy-team motions. The problem with this (and with a lot of other historical capers like this) is that we already know the outcome: they capture Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and manage to get him home.
That’s not automatically a death sentence for tension in a film like this, but the filmmaking has to overcome it, and Operation Finale only teases at doom for our heroes. At no point is any member of the team feels in any real danger; even a ticking-clock scenario involving Eichmann’s son (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) doesn’t really go anywhere. When team members are left behind so they can ferry Eichmann back to Israel, the film can’t seem to sell any possibility that they won’t make it out of Argentina. As slick as those proceedings are, they don’t chill the blood the way more successful spy/heist movies manage – hell, it even tries for an Argo-esque race to the airport, which sadly fizzles.
As the drama’s better moments demonstrate, however, Operation Finale works most strongly as a thematically rich representation of the generational pain Jews felt (and still feel) as a result of the Holocaust, and what that pain might cost them if they let it consume them. Sure, the logistics of capturing and extraditing Eichmann are a bit of a damp squib, but the film’s middle act – when they have Eichmann captured in a safe house, trying to extract a signature from him that says he’s voluntarily standing trial in Israel – is the real standout.
Effectively a series of well-paced two-handers between Isaac and Kingsley, a pair of actors at the top of their game, Operation Finale thankfully takes the time to dig into some deep thematic material. For Malkin (and some of his teammates), they’d much rather just assassinate Eichmann than give him an international platform by standing trial; Eichmann, on the other hand, refuses to stand trial because he wants his version of the story to be told – snakily vacillating between sheer hatred for the Jews and calculated guilt for what he’s done. If Operation Finale played out just in this safe-house bedroom, it would end up being a much more consistent, solid drama about how much we have to sacrifice to gain the justice we so sorely desire, and what that means for our souls when facing pure evil.
Juxtaposing the paint-by-numbers spycraft of the first and third acts and the dramatic mastery of the middle section makes Operation Finale a really strange animal. To their credit, the performers are all admirable, Isaac in particular giving off those matinee-idol good looks while imbuing Malkin with a deep pain and longing he desperately needs to fulfill by bringing Eichmann to justice. Kingsley, meanwhile, puts forth some of his best work in years with Eichmann, a man paradoxically wracked with guilt for his role in the Holocaust and selfishly concerned with his personal reputation.
The supporting players do their best to juice up some underwritten role (Kroll in particular, dipping his toe back into dramatic work after Loving), but there’s just not enough room for them with Isaac and Kingsley so front and center. Laurent’s character particularly suffers, a barely-there love interest seemingly designed purely to make sure that there was some female presence in the picture.
As a boilerplate historical thriller, Operation Finale ticks all the boxes it needs to, but doesn’t impress apart from the beautiful, small-scale Judgment at Nuremberg that plays out between Isaac and Kingsley. In those notes, however, there’s more than a little that rings true even today – especially as Internet debates rage whether or not sunlight is actually the best disinfectant against pure evil. For the characters of Operation Finale, and Jews around the world, it provided much-needed closure and justice. Who knows how it’d go over today.
Operation Finale sedates you and throws you on a plane to answer for war crimes Wednesday, August 29th.