Original caricature by Jeff York of Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac in OPERATION FINALE (copyright 2018).The story of the capture of famed Nazi Adolf Eichmann is an inherently dramatic one. The architect of “The Final Solution,” the Third Reich plan to exterminate all the Jews during WWII, managed to escape an American prison camp after the war and migrate to Argentina. There, the fugitive thrived under the name “Ricardo Klement” for years until Jewish intelligence officers nabbed him in 1960 and took him back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. The moniker for that mission was “Operation Finale,” and so is the name of this new major motion picture based on those events. Like the operation itself, the film is incredibly noble, even if it fails to cut as deeply as it could.
After the war ended, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) was a Mossad officer whose mission was to hunt down escaped Nazi’s and exterminate them with extreme prejudice. In the opening moments of the movie, he and his men find one Nazi who’s evaded capture and kill him, even though he’s not the precise culprit they were looking for. Malkin is haunted by such mistakes, not to mention the death of his sister Fruma (Rita Pauls) and her three children and the hands of SS officers during the war, and it makes him a more moral crusader.
Despite Malkin’s aversion to all the killing as part of his job, his vocation excites him when given the opportunity to fly to Argentina to help apprehend the fugitive Eichmann. Intel reports indicate the former Nazi is hiding there in plain sight, working as a foreman at a Mercedes Benz plants. (German cars, of course.) The intel comes from an unusual source, a teen who’s dating Eichmann’s son. Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) is living in Argentina with her blind German Jew father Lothar (Peter Strauss) when she realizes that her handsome suitor Klaus (Joe Alwyn) is not only a closeted Nazi but also the son of the Nazi legend Eichmann. She bravely contacts the Israel embassy, and soon a Massad team is assembled to carry out a seize and capture mission.
Malkin joins a handful of other elite agents and even persuades his ex-girlfriend Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) to join them. She too is more than a little gun-shy about such kidnapping missions as her previous one turned into a debacle when her hypodermic failed to keep the prisoner sedated. Still, this is a chance to get Eichmann, so she reluctantly joins the crew despite her misgivings. Other key members of the ensuing raid include intelligence officer Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) and lead interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov).
As the team arrives in Argentina, screenwriter Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz ensure the mission starts with crackling tension and verve. The intelligence officers make a brazenly bold move in employing Sylvia to help them positively ID Eichmann, and the young woman bravely walks into the lion’s den. She visits the home of Klaus while agents wait outside, cameras ready, hoping to get a glimpse of Eichmann. She manages to lure both her boyfriend and his father out of the house, and you fear for her discovery every second of the best scene in the film.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a scene that comes close to matching it afterward. The tension percolates along at a decent boil, but the actions never seem to genuinely touch the hem of danger again. Even worse, what appeared to be the climax of the film in the trailer – the moment they snatch Eichmann – plays out smack dab in the middle of the narrative. Malkin and his team grab the bespectacled man on the road upon his return home from work, but the scene gets wholly rushed. Before they barely make eye contact, Malkin is wrestling Eichmann to the ground. They roll around in the ditch as Malkin tries to keep Eichmann from screaming for help, but the fight doesn’t seem nearly visceral enough. Then eyeglasses are lost, syringes are dropped (Again, Hanna?), and scuffle noises arouse the suspicions of Eichmann’s wife Vera (Greta Scacchi). Yet, it’s all gone in a flash, and it becomes the first of the film’s significant miscalculations.
A director like Brian De Palma would’ve utilized ultra-slow-motion in such a scene, maximizing every blink of the eyes as Malkin calmly approached Eichmann on that road before his attack. One like Martin Scorsese would’ve made that fight in the ditch so vicious that both men would be wholly shaken by it, not to mention the trembling audience in the Cineplex. But Weitz, he shoots it all far too matter-of-fact, almost as if it’s an 80’s TV-movie. His direction is competent, but never truly elevates the material.
Once the intelligence agents have Eichmann in their safehouse, the drama merely putters along. The team has to sit and wait while Israel and El Al Airlines (the Israel carrier) piddle around with the politics of timing to get them out of Argentina. That means the officers have a lot of time to get to know their prisoner, but not enough comes of it. Malkin is portrayed as an earnest social justice warrior, willing to try new things to extract a signature needed from Eichmann on documentation, but the rest of the agents are ciphers.
Nick Kroll brought a wry sense to every scene he had in a similar role in the moving LOVING two years ago, but the script never makes hay of his comic skills. Even stranger is that Weitz, the director of the modern comedy classic AMERICAN PIE, would let such an opportunity slip. Laurent’s character does little except fulfilling “the girl role,” as she stands around with precious little to do. There’s not even any heat exhibited between her and the equally attractive Isaac. Even Aronov gets only a few scant lines to convey his wily interrogator and seems mostly distinguished by the fact that the actor looks too much like Kingsley.
As for Sir Ben, he brings all the haughty dignity to his devil as you’d expect, making the most of the few times he gets to actually speak. When he expresses sympathy to Malkin about the history of Fruma, Kingsley subtly lets us see the machinations of his evil mind as he stores it to be used later to his advantage. When that moment arrives, with Eichmann taunting Malkin, the cat and mouse way this whole movie could’ve gone becomes readily apparent, but Orton’s script is too reverential to history and also arms’ length from creating such necessary onscreen dramatics.
The climax attempts to turn the team’s escape to the airport with the Nazi’s in hot pursuit into a breathless chase like that in ARGO, but it feels like a rip-off. If the filmmakers here were going to borrow a page from any other film’s playbook, they should’ve taken a look at 70’s Nazi-themed potboilers like MARATHON MAN and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. The themes of WWII were never treated casually there, but those movies popped with verve and vitriol. (Alexandre Desplat’s score tries to emulate that feel, but his hyperbolic score doesn’t match the rest of the soft material here.) OPERATION FINALE may be admirable and noble, but so are the documentaries on A & E. This one needed to be more than just a good history lesson. It needed to be a great thriller.