Film Review – Operation Finale
Adolf Eichmann was one of Hitler’s top Nazi officers. He was a chief architect of the “Final Solution,” better known as the Holocaust, resulting in the deaths of six million people. Eichmann oversaw the operations of the concentration camps and helped organize the death trains that herded people (mostly Jews) to the slaughter. Obvious to say that Eichmann was a major contributor to one of the most horrific crimes against humanity in recorded history. At the close of the WWII, Eichmann was able to escape Allied capture and relocated to Argentina where he would live in hiding for years – until his presence was discovered by Israeli secret agents, who attempted to apprehend him and deliver him to Israeli to face trial.
That is where Operation Finale (2018) comes into play. Written by Matthew Orton and directed by Chris Weitz, the story follows a group of Mossad agents as they work to confirm Eichmann’s identity (here played by Ben Kingsley) and detain him. But the mission isn’t as simple as it seems. The team must work in secrecy – if the Argentine government discovers their plot, officials may try to block the extradition. There’s the logistical issue of getting transportation, as problems with securing air travel may force them to wait longer than need be. There’s the problem with the team members themselves. Each of them would be much happier killing Eichmann straight away, but they are under strict orders to bring him back alive. Even more problematic: they must get Eichmann to sign a document that is basically a confession, giving them the legal right to transfer him out of the country. That bit won’t be easy to get, needless to say.
This synopsis alone is enough to make for an efficient historical thriller, and for the early stages, it is. There’s a growing sense of uneasiness as the agents make their way closer and closer to Eichmann. They use secret gadgets and hidden cameras to track Eichmann’s movements, and the way they communicate information to their superiors happen quickly and efficiently. The tension is escalated due to the emotional factor involved. Each agent was affected by what happened during the war, and that motivation makes this particular task more than just a job. One of the more sobering scenes has each of them counting the friends and family members they’ve lost, like a depressing game of one-upsmanship.
Amongst them is Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac). Malkin is our lead protagonist, a Jew who made it his personal mission to track down as many Nazi officials as he can and bring them to justice. But Malkin is also depicted as angry and unhinged. He’s haunted by the memory of a family member he lost, and that causes him to be involved in an early accident that gains him an unfavorable reputation. It’s that reason that almost prevents him from being assigned the Eichmann mission.
Operation Finale starts off well enough introducing our major characters and setting the stakes. We suspect that it will work similarly to other historical thrillers like Argo (2012) or Munich (2005). There’s a sleekness to the aesthetics, in the props used and costumes worn. Everything looks and sounds accurate to the period. However, when we enter the second act the narrative comes to a screeching halt. The suspense generated in the first act dissipates as Eichmann is eventually captured and brought to a safe house to await transportation to Israel. This is where the meat of the story takes place. Instead of an espionage tale, we are brought into a psychological war between Malkin, who acts out of emotion instead of logic, and Eichmann, who uses his intelligence and cunning to find a weakness in his captors and to exploit it.
This development has potential. Some of the greatest movies of all time were centered on two figures matching wits against each other; one classic example being The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley are exceptional actors, and both bring a level of gravitas with their respective parts. However, the writing lets them down with dialogue that isn’t sharp enough or as memorable as it needs to be. The conversations between Malkin and Eichmann only skim the surface of who they are, never really digging for a deeper revelation. Yes, we learn about those that Malkin has lost, but they exist like an apparition. We never get a sense of who they were or what they meant to him outside of some longing glances. Kingsley can be a charming actor when given the right material, but as Eichmann he’s forced to play a character as nothing more than evil incarnate. There’s a late scene where Eichmann tries to manipulate Malkin’s vulnerabilities and the execution made him look like a mustache-twirling villain. Maybe that’s the problem with playing a Nazi: it’s difficult to find something charming in a character that is so ruthlessly diabolical.
Operation Finale closes with the trope of showing the real life figures and describing what happened to them after the events of the film. That’s a bit indicative of the piece as a whole. It looks good, has a strong cast, and is based on a true story. It has all the ingredients necessary for a critically acclaimed work, and yet we walk away feeling like this is more of the same. This is an important story that should be told, but I don’t think this is the essential version of it.