Film Review: Operation Finale

Retribution thriller recounting the capture of Holocaust mastermind Adolph Eichmann has its moments but fails to deliver new insights.
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Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale is a thoroughly engaging thriller, with all the requisite trappings: suspense, tension, and even a bit of a love story. And that’s precisely its problem. Given the magnitude and complexity of the topic, an entertaining film is almost irrelevant, at moments trivializing. This particular story cries out to be viewed through a new, fresh lens. Otherwise, why are we hearing it? Why now?

Operation Finale recounts how Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) secretly planned, tracked down and ultimately captured Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in 1960. Escaping to Argentina and hiding in plain sight—though he renamed himself Ricardo Klement—he eluded detection for 15 years. But in the end he was shipped back to Israel, tried, convicted of crimes against humanity and executed in 1962.

The trial received international attention. For the first time, Holocaust victims/survivors could confront the accused in Israel, their home base. By all accounts, the Jerusalem courtroom, filled beyond capacity and flanked by armed guards, partook of the surreal, nowhere more so than in an almost nondescript Eichmann enclosed in a bulletproof glass booth. (Remember The Man in the Glass Booth, novel, play and film?)

Today, the trial is perhaps most identified with Hannah Arendt’s iconic and groundbreaking book—originally written for The New Yorker—Eichmann in Jerusalem:A Report on the Banality of Evil. It continues to be a terrifying account of just how bland and ordinary Eichmann was—one of the great monsters of all time.

Ben Kingsley is the perfect choice for Eichmann, given his track record for playing contradictory characters (Death and the Maiden, An Ordinary Man, Schindler’s List, The House of Sand and Fog) but even he cannot lift this film beyond the well-tread retribution thriller (not unlike Inglourious Basterds or Munich).

The filmmakers’ challenge was made all the more difficult because the same story has already been told twice before (admittedly on the small screen), first in the 1979 TV movie The House on Garibaldi Street and more relevantly the 1996 TV movie The Man Who Captured Eichmann (starring Robert Duvall as Eichmann and Arliss Howard as Malkin), based on Malkin’s own memoir, Eichmann in My Hands. Operation Finale, written by Matthew Orton, loosely follows the latter’s narrative outline.

Malkin, who lost his sister and nephews to the Nazis, had been living in Israel for years and working undercover for the Mossad. When the intelligence agency receives a tip from an Argentinean-based Jewish refugee (Haley Lu Richardson) that she is in contact with (allegedly the girlfriend of) Eichmann’s adult son and by extension has access to Eichmann himself, the Mossad is drawn in, knowing it faces an especially complex, dangerous maneuver: entering a sovereign nation, apprehending its prey and escaping with him.

Every possible contingency is planned for, with no shortage of dry runs. The abduction is suspenseful, occurring in a torrential nighttime downpour as Malkin, crouching behind trees, observes Eichmann disembarking from a bus and walking home alone, an isolated figure. The next actions are quick: Malkin emerging from the darkness, seizing and tackling Eichmann, pushing him into a waiting car. It speeds through the streets carrying its cargo to a safe house as an interim step to escaping the country.

Some of the backstories are effectively handled too.  Malkin’s Holocaust flashbacks make the hideous remembrances clear without overkill. And the Argentinean world, with its Nazi gatherings including high officials in the Catholic Church, gives the story context and is appropriately shocking.

However, what would seem to be the story’s centerpiece and an opportunity for new insights is glossed over quickly. To wit: who the two leads are and their relationship (two elements that were integral to the 1996 TV movie).

Eichmann barely exists here. He’s tight-lipped and humorless, but that’s about it when, as Malkin described in his memoir, he was a brilliant manipulator and liar—and knew exactly the impression he was making—on the one hand, and saw himself as a misunderstood cog in the wheel on the other hand. He had no personal problems with Jews, he said. Asked why he had killed Malkin’s nephew, he responded, “He was Jewish, wasn’t he?” He certainly didn’t view himself as contradictory or evil. He was a family man, loved his sons, classical music and a good red wine. But most important, he was an obedient and reliable soldier and wanted to be recognized and praised for that.

Similarly, Malkin is largely one-dimensional. Oscar Isaac, a handsome, charismatic actor, has little to work with. We don’t know, for example, why or how Malkin joined the Mossad, or what role, if any, rage or survivor’s guilt played. Most irksome, his feelings for Eichmann are never revealed. Malkin spelled it out in his book. He was captivated and revolted by Eichmann in equal measure. He violated orders by speaking to Eichmann and establishing a bond of sorts. This was calculated strategy to get Eichmann to sign a release form, allowing the Israelis to extradite him to Israel. Malkin was a canny operator in his own right. But he was also exploiting his unauthorized relationship with Eichmann in an effort to understand him. It’s cat-and-mouse but so much more, none of which is present in the film.

The philosophical/moral issues surrounding the treatment of Nazi war criminals are touched on by various members of the Mossad team (Nick Kroll, Lior Raz and Michael Aronov), but regrettably that too quickly becomes a once-over-lightly that begs for elaboration.

And then there’s the off-putting girlfriend issue. Strictly adhering to some old-hat Hollywood formula, Malkin has “sexual tension” with Hanna ((Mélanie Laurent), a medic who was brought onboard for the mission. Malkin wrote that the Mossad often had a woman on hand as a decoy, thus camouflaging the agency’s identity in the early ’60s when women were rarely (if ever) Mossad operatives. It’s also true that someone with medical knowledge was part of this particular operation in order to maintain Eichmann’s good health and sedate him before spiriting him out of the country.

But the doctor was a man and Malkin’s girlfriend was back in Israel with no idea where he was. More compelling—and what a lovely snippet this would have made in the film—Malkin was in conflict with a female team member, though there was no sexual tension involved. The issues were political and religious. Still, the unlikely couple decided to sleep together one night because they were lonely and frightened. They literally slept together, nothing else. Adaptations don’t have to mirror the original source, but when the latter provides great material, it’s unfathomable not to use it and, worse, replace it, cheapen it, with clichés.

The Holocaust, tracking down Nazis and/or related film topics demand originality (without violating the facts, of course), if for no other reason than to compensate for the fact that we’ve heard so much of it before and it just doesn’t resonate the way it once did. Consider this: When Jakiw Palij (age 95), the last known surviving Nazi accused of war crimes and living in Queens for decades, was finally deported to Germany on August 21, it was not headline news anywhere. In the television programs that covered it (many did not), it was a tacked on at the end. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s inevitable. And films like Operation Finale will not enlighten those who don’t comprehend the era in any meaningful way or change the views of Holocaust deniers.