Operation Finale turns an intriguing true story into a tepid, forgettable affair
The story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann, a top lieutenant in Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime who oversaw the organization of Holocaust, seems like a true story well-suited for a modern adaptation. The shadow of the Holocaust and the Nazi powers that orchestrated it seem to be looming darker as of late, with openly white supremacist aggressors continuing to find ground in politics and spew the vile teachings of the Nazis in a modern context. The depiction of the justice brought upon a man idolized by these sorts of people could be a searing, powerful moment in modern biography cinema, acting as a lighting rod for further exploration of the relationship between accountability and hatred. Operation Finale, writer-director Chris Weitz's (About a Boy) take on Eichmann's capture, is not that film. It is instead a disappointingly conventional, tepid period drama that plays it too safe when it comes to exploring the depth of emotional complexity behind the event it is re-enacting.
Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) stars here as Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent tasked with capturing Eichmann, played by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi). A romance in Argentina between Sylvia, a girl unaware of her Jewish heritage (a woefully underused Hayley Lu Richardson), and Eichmann's son Klaus (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) alerts her guardian to the presence of Eichmann, a fact he relays to Israeli intelligence. Malkin and a team including pacifist nurse (and of course, love interest) Hanna (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds) and coordinator Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll, Kroll Show) are sent to Argentina to capture Eichmann and force him to agree to stand trial in Israel.
The actual capture itself, despite its heavy role in the film's marketing, takes up little of the action, with the real focus instead lying on the verbal cat-and-mouse game between Eichmann and Malkin, who takes it upon himself to get Eichmann's signature agreeing to the tribunal that would later end his life. It allows for the expected scenery-chewing standoffs between Isaac and Kingsley, which serve as showcases for both actors' dramatic talents. Isaac, playing Malkin as a man whose loss of his sister in the Holocaust has given him a blood thirst for Nazis that is difficult for him to control, brings gravitas to a role that otherwise could come off as underdeveloped. On paper, Malkin is a wooden character defined only by stereotypical characteristics of grief, but Isaac conjures up a pain and intensity in his performance that elevates the role. His emotions are always close to the chest, threatening to bubble over in every scene. Kingsley is predictably very good as Eichmann, crafting a slippery monster who serves as an able representation of the "I was only following orders" kind of mass murderer in one scene before veering wildly into evil philosophizing in the next.
However, it can feel at times that this cinematic Eichmann is Hollywood-phony, a coward elevated into something more articulately sinister for the sake of giving Kingsley more to sink his teeth into. Eichmann, despite the complexity behind the two-faced nature of his private self-aggrandizing and public act of playing dumb, feels alarmingly like a villain you've seen a hundred times before. Which brings us to the core of the problem with Operation Finale, which is its preoccupation with adhering to outdated standards of historical filmmaking. It's remarkable that a film about one of the most evil men in modern history feels so utterly unremarkable. The film is plagued by a lack of direct commentary on Eichmann's atrocities, frequently favoring a neutral view of events that makes it feel less like an aware political drama and more like a conventional spy film. Matthew Orton's script goes through the motions of what you would expect from a film like this, but never steers it in any directions that are particularly interesting. Perhaps most unforgivable is his refusal to confront Nazism with any truly damning critiques, instead veering dangerously close to the "Nazis were humans too!" category.
The crime of Operation Finale is that it's simply just fine. It's not a bad movie by any means, as it features two fine performances from beloved actors and provides a tightly crafted, if often exceedingly boring, recreation of an important event in history. The problem is that it ignores the roots of the cold viciousness that created the Holocaust, instead buying into "the banality of evil" trope created by Hannah Arendt's famous retelling of Eichmann's trial. In doing so, it buys into the mystique of a middle man driven to murder due to his own unremarkable nature. That takes away accountability from the very people who orchestrated one of the most devastating genocides in history, and instead does little to encourage audiences to fight the horrors of racism today. It unknowingly instructs us to wait until after the damage is already done.