Failed mission: Nazi retribution story falls prey to poor technique

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Despite outstanding performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, Operation Finale does not succeed in telling a gripping story.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Despite outstanding performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, Operation Finale does not succeed in telling a gripping story. Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018

The capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal often referred to as the architect of the Final Solution, was a massive victory not only for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but for the notion that the serving of justice was far from complete after Nuremberg. No matter how much time has passed or where they have fled to, the perpetrators of modern history’s greatest crime should answer for their actions. But, before Eichmann could be put on trial, he had to be brought out of hiding in a daring, high-stakes covert operation where the slightest error could endanger all similar efforts to bring Nazis to justice.

In telling this story, Operation Finale should have channeled the natural tension that occurs when a team of Mossad agents must remain focused on the mission despite their deep personal connection to Eichmann’s crimes. Instead, what we get is a paint-by-numbers thriller that defuses intrigue with artificial ticking clocks, manufactured dilemmas, and pat coincidences that dilute an otherwise important story.

Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, the Israeli agent tasked with abducting Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) once his location is confirmed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Eichmann, it seems, assumed the name Ricardo Klement while working at a Mercedes-Benz factory, living among the German expatriate community under the protection of a friendly administration. Malkin’s role is to physically subdue Eichmann on his way home from work, then pull him into a car where he will be drugged and taken to a safe house. From there, he is to be interrogated and flown back to Israel to face trial, all without raising local suspicion as the operation is a violation of Argentine sovereignty.

Even the best mission conducted by the finest agents faces obstacles and unforeseen complications, and this team sees its share: the loss of Eichmann’s glasses at the scene of his abduction, a manhunt led by Eichmann’s fully Nazified son, a disloyal delivery girl from the local Jewish population, and El Al Airline’s reluctance to openly participate in the operation, resulting in 10 unplanned days spent avoiding attention. Even when the events depicted actually happened, they are bent to conform to conventional thriller tropes instead of explored on their own terms.

In a movie like this, where you already know the outcome, the viewers still need to feel like the agents might not pull it off to properly engage with the subject matter. Director Chris Weitz prefers to blatantly foreshadow instead of quietly letting emotions boil over, as though he made a checklist and altered it to fit the facts of the case. That’s not how to build audience engagement; we need to sympathize with the heroes in not knowing if the next move would be the one that saves the day or totally blows the operation. It’s a much more rewarding experience to put yourself in the shoes of someone who must act decisively but tread lightly, than to watch scenarios you’ve seen a million times but this time they are more or less factual. It cheapens the historical value and deadens the artistic merit.

Operation Finale does succeed in it’s fine performances, chiefly by Isaac and Kingsley, but also the strong supporting cast (Lior Raz, Mélanie Laurent, Nick Kroll, and briefly Greta Scacchi). Isaac gives Malkin’s sense of humor a defensive touch, as though it is the sole attribute keeping his damaged psyche together. Kingsley’s Eichmann is the embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s description, the “banality of evil,” an almost feeble man who defends his role in the Holocaust as a procedural one. Malkin’s decision to play into Eichmann’s ego rather than his instinct for self-preservation can be a fascinating one to watch, and perhaps should have been the main focus of the film.

Educating the world on how too many Nazis escaped justice is a worthwhile pursuit, as is depicting the pursuit of justice as difficult and morally muddled. But despite good intentions and a few admirable qualities, Operation Finale is not up to the task.

Operation Finale / PG-13, 122 minutes

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