There’s something very familiar about “Operation Finale,” written by debut screenwriter Matthew Orton and directed by Chris Weitz. The film chronicles the thrilling, stranger-than-fiction 1960 Mossad operation to kidnap principal Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and extradite him to Israel to be tried for war crimes. The event was depicted in the 1996 TV movie “The Man Who Captured Eichmann,” in the 2014 German Foreign Language Academy Award submission “Labyrinth of Lies,” as well as the 2015 German biopic “The People Vs. Fritz Bauer.” A recent “Drunk History” segment starring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” Rachel Bloom even dramatized the kidnapping. So, unfortunately, “Operation Finale” feels a bit behind the ball when it comes to the dramatic true story.
The execution itself is familiar: slightly too mannered, too polite, a color-by-numbers political thriller filled with character archetypes, and story beats we’ve seen before. Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, a Mossad agent tapped for the mission to Argentina to nab Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a high-level Nazi bureaucrat who oversaw the transportation of millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. Peter is tormented by surrealistic visions of his sister Fruma (Rita Pauls), who met her demise in a German forest with her three children at the hands of Nazi soldiers.
When Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), a young German woman in Buenos Aires, starts a relationship with Eichmann’s son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn), word gets back to Mossad that the elusive officer has been living in the country under an assumed name, working at a Mercedes-Benz factory. The intelligence agency plans a mission that involves surveillance, kidnapping under the cover of night and smuggling Eichmann out of Argentina on an El Al flight, sedated and disguised as a drunken pilot.
The story’s details are truly wild and unbelievable, but the plotting and characters feel rote. Perhaps that’s just overfamiliarity with the story. The second half, when Isaac and Kingsley face off in a war of philosophies, is when the film truly comes together. El Al refuses to transport Eichmann until he signs a document assenting to the extradition and trial, so the team must wait, holding him hostage in a safe house. To get him to sign, Peter appeals to the man’s ego, vulnerability and ultimately, his humanity, facing down the man he believes responsible for the death of his sister.
Eichmann has long been seen as the face of the “banality of evil,” and Kingsley portrays him as a fastidious, meticulous man claiming he was just following orders. He was just trying to protect his country, the same thing Peter wants. But underneath the proper manners and moments when he declares himself simply a cog in a machine, there’s something simmering. That’s actually what Peter and Adolph have in common, a burning rage that threatens to boil over their controlled demeanors. What do the Israelis want: revenge or justice?
At the 11th hour, Peter strips away Eichmann’s propriety, revealing his true nature, and wins the psychological war. It’s a personal moment that sits at the core of the collective catharsis Eichmann’s trial provided, conducted in Israel and televised globally – the first time many heard testimony of the Holocaust. In the war for minds and hearts, justice must always prevail over hatred, and over vengeance. It’s a lesson we must take to heart again and again.
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