MOVIE REVIEW – OPERATION FINALE. With Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll. Written by Matthew Orton. Directed by Chris Weitz. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language. 123 minutes.
In 1960, a team of Israeli operatives arrived in Argentina on a mission: to kidnap Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, and to bring him to Israel to stand trial. Beyond the logistics, there was also the issue of their violating Argentine sovereignty and the question whether Israel had the right to try him for crimes that occurred in Europe, not Israel. Would such a proceeding even be deemed a fair trial by the rest of the world?
While taking some dramatic liberties, OPERATION FINALE tells the story right by focusing on the people rather than the diplomatic or judicial issues. The latter are addressed, but the drama of the film comes from exploring how it affects the Israelis who are forced to share close quarters with their prisoner for several days until he can be removed from the country. For them, it’s personal as we see in one scene where they seem to compete with each other in a bitter contest over who had more family members murdered.
Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, who was also one of the film’s producers) lost a beloved sister and her children. The film depicts him as falling somewhere between the rigid professionalism of the team’s leader (Michael Aronov) and one of the more headstrong members (Greg Hill) who wonders why they don’t just put a bullet in Eichmann’s head. To ensure that they would face no legal repercussions for participating in the operation, the Israel airline El Al required that Eichmann sign a document stating he was willingly going to Israel to stand trial. The central drama of the story is convincing him to do so.
It is in the scenes between Isaac and the protean Ben Kingsley, adding another memorable performance to his filmography as Eichmann, where the film’s dilemma plays out. Rather than try to coerce their captive, Malkin treats him humanely, attempting to win his trust enough to sign the document. Realizing Eichmann is obsessive over his self-image, Malkin assures him he will be able to tell his story and it will not be a show trial. It is a psychodrama where Eichmann, knowing how it must end, tries to wring concessions from his captors, with Malkin granting him the mercy that Eichmann never showed his millions of victims.
The supporting cast, which includes Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Peter Strauss, and Greta Scacchi, is solid, but the film really rests on the performances of Isaac and Kingsley as each probes the other for weakness, looking for the appropriate buttons to push. Each has a moment or two where they lose control, starting with how the agents get their captive to admit he actually is Eichmann. It is those scenes that redeem the more contrived moments of suspense, which seem to have been added to spice up the historical record.
“Operation Finale” is powerful not because it attempts to “explain” the Holocaust, something that is ultimately impossible, but because it instead shows an instance of Jews taking charge of their destiny in the aftermath of one of the great horrors of modern times.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.