Handcuffed and blindfolded, the elderly Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) awaits his ultimate fate in a small bedroom of a safehouse in Buenos Aires. “They will try the man they think they know,” he mutters to one of the other characters tasked with keeping an eye on him. Taken out of context, this simple but affecting plea for empathy and understanding carries with it a tragic air. Could there have been some kind of misunderstanding? He’s been taken from his family in the dead of night and gagged, drugged, and successfully kidnapped by a legion of foreign special agents. For much of Operation Finale, Eichmann is a helpless character, dragged around from place to place without any semblance of authority or power. Now might be the time to mention that he was also one of the men responsible for carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution.
Circa 1960 and long after the arraignment of Nazi war criminals, a team of Mossad agents is informed of a man suspected of being Eichmann living in Buenos Aires under a pseudonym. After an investigation on the ground confirms this suspicion, the team—helmed by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac)—decides it’s worthwhile to attempt an extraction, to capture and transport this man to Israel where he will finally stand trial for his heinous crimes against the Jewish people. But before they can go, they must first assemble a team (as one does in films of this kind): Rafi (Nick Kroll), Hanna (Melanie Laurent), and Isser (Lior Raz) make up the supporting cast. Memories of the camps rush back into these characters’ consciousness as they prepare to confront the man known for orchestrating this human catastrophe. Above all else, Operation Finale captures a sense of Jewish identity in the conversations between Mossad agents commiserating together over the family they lost and the tragedies they witnessed.
The film then kicks into procedural mode as the agents arrive in Argentina and prepare for the capture, donning disguises and practicing tactical maneuvers — the standard stuff. Once the target’s acquired in an underwhelming sequence where Malkin tackles Eichmann to the ground and ties him up, they return to the safehouse and attempt to figure out a way to get him back to Israel. An agent informs the team that they’ve been put on a no-fly list, a good enough reason to keep the characters together under the same roof as they figure out a way to smuggle Eichmann out of the country. In the interim, the Mossad agents must take turns watching and feeding their prisoner, awaiting departure as they confront the fact that evil has taken on a human face.
In spite of a strong enough premise, Operation Finale quickly devolves into an amalgam of a few critically lauded period dramas dealing with post-war moral ambiguity; featuring principled, middle-aged men tasked with making a difficult decision in a time of crisis. Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton take a lot of structural, aesthetic, and conceptual ideas from the likes of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Munich, along with Affleck’s Argo, and the film’s reverence won’t go unnoticed if only because it isn’t too difficult to figure out what Orton’s screenplay is doing. In truth, Weitz appropriates the look and feel of these films to give this story the appearance of moral heft when, in fact, there’s very little. Kingsley endows Eichmann with an eloquence and humor that’s meant to surprise us, springing on us the harsh truth that evil people are people too. Evidently, this sort of technique is better suited for something like Bridge of Spies where the character in question is not a homicidal Nazi organizer, but instead, a Russian spy whose morality and motives are significantly more shrouded.
Kingsley turns in a genuinely good performance, but Eichmann never garners any lasting sympathy from us because the film doesn’t really allow for any. His words carry weight, but his psychology never renders into anything unexpected or nuanced. It doesn’t help that Oscar Isaac isn’t given anything to do—he’s often relegated to sitting pensively in the corner of a room, or piping in at the end of an important conversation to make an unfunny wisecrack. Occasionally interrupting the drama at the safehouse is a subpar subplot with Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), Adolf’s son and proud member of a faction of Nazis looking to rise to power in Buenos Aires, that’s been shoehorned into the movie for the sake of “tension” and “relevance.”
For much of the runtime, Operation Finale goes through the motions—it looks and feels like the films it aspires to be, but something about it is lacking. Maybe it’s the writing. Even after setting aside the contrivances and character clichés, the dialogue often feels unnatural and awkward (and not in any way that would suggest subversiveness). It also could be the jangly, out-of-nowhere score from Alexandre Desplat that feels considerably more playful than the film wants or to be, creating a tonal dissonance that does the work no favors. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that Operation Finale doesn’t want to get its hands dirty, preferring instead to hide behind the sheen of its slick, manufactured images that recall but fail to emulate the better films that came before it.
Featured Image by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer