Arriving hot on the heels of “BlacKkKlansman,” Chris Weitz’s “Operation Finale” is a major addition to American cinema’s oddest new sub-genre: Morally conflicted period pieces in which “Star Wars” actors of various ethnicities are cast as sexy Nazi-hunters. Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, a Denver cop who went undercover to infiltrate the KKK in 1979? No complaints here. Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who caught Adolf Eichmann hiding in Argentina? Well…
If the willful obliviousness of the Trump era is inevitably going to result in a rash of new movies that investigate anti-semitism, the Holocaust, and/or the broader history of organized hatred, we could use Hollywood’s most relevant talent to help modern viewers appreciate why. “Operation Finale” may not be a particularly good thriller — it’s broader than the Jewish diaspora, and even pitchier than the delivery of my haftorah portion — but Poe Dameron sure helps the film to convey the urgency of its message.
A vintage dad movie that boasts the formal complexity of “Argo” and a fraction of the suspense, “Operation Finale” is (rather accurately) based on the real Israeli mission of the same name. The story begins 15 years after the end of World War II, and almost as long since many of the most prominent Nazis were hanged in Nuremberg. However, several of Hitler’s top lieutenants actually did return to their homes, burn their uniforms, and build new lives from the ashes of the world they had helped to destroy.
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Peter Malkin (Isaac) isn’t happy about that. A German-born, Palestine-raised Jew with a hole in his heart and a license to kill, Malkin roams the European countryside, rooting out the surviving members of the S.S.. He’s happy to do it, but too blinded by trauma and rage to always do it well, or to question his task. The film’s off-kilter first scene finds him misidentifying a man in the Viennese countryside, and executing the wrong Nazi. After a brief moment of panic and doubt: “So what, he was still a Nazi.” Isaac plays this moment (and several more like it) for easy laughs, and somehow he manages to pull it off — the guy’s so charming he can literally get away with murder.
Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of Buenos Aires, a teenage girl named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson, wasted on a bit part) catches a screening of “Imitation of Life,” blithely unaware of her Jewish heritage, the dangers it presents, and how they might be reflected in Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama. Sylvia, we learn, has a mutual crush on an Aryan immigrant named Klaus, and that kid is all too familiar with his bloodline (Joe Alwyn is frighteningly believable in the role). He even takes Sylvia to a vociferous Nazi meeting, because nothing makes a girl want to make out like a room full of impotent genocidal maniacs.
Klaus at least has the good sense not to tell Sylvia or anyone else that his father — the quiet man who works in the local Mercedes Benz factory — is actually Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the architect of the Final Solution and the highest-ranking member of Hitler’s inner circle to evade capture. Fortunately, Sylvia is smart enough to figure that out on her own. Word gets back to Tel Aviv, where Malkin is drafted onto a top-secret team of spies and tasked with a holy mission that supersedes international law: Go to Argentina, abduct Eichmann, and bring him to Israel so that he can stand trial before his victims. All of this actually happened, more or less.
So begins an uneven thriller that starts like “Munich,” grows into “Ex Machina” (across the series of theatrical hostage scenes in which Malkin probes Eichmann’s humanity), and is always glazed with the slick banality of network TV. Despite the pluckiness of Alexandre Desplat’s score, and the playful severity that Nick Kroll and Mélanie Laurent bring to their roles as Malkin’s fellow spies, the first act of “Operation Finale” is too obvious to be suspenseful. For all of the moral ambiguity that it eventually hopes to entertain, Matthew Orton’s screenplay telegraphs most of its beats in large blinking lights, and spells out all of the emotions you’re supposed to feel along the way — even for a work of historical nonfiction, “Operation Finale” often feels like bowling with bumpers.
Eichmann himself is the worst embodiment of this problem. First presented as a mild-mannered ex-pat who might potentially feel some degree of remorse for his unspeakably horrific crimes, Eichmann can’t even get through his first big scene without boiling over with rage and throttling his son. This is the first of many indications that “Operation Finale” — eager to make Eichmann appear human — is deathly afraid of humanizing him too much.
It’s a deliberate bit of hedging in a film that pointedly refuses to pick sides between Hannah Arendt and Claude Lanzmann, between the “banality of evil” and the limitless cruelty of systematic extermination. How bad are the “good Germans?” How much blood do they have on their hands? Eichmann claims that he was “one of the many horses pulling the wagon and couldn’t escape left or right because of the will of the driver,” but at what point does individual responsibility enter the equation? Weitz and Orton mean to question the individual’s role in a mass atrocity, but the abstract nature of their ideas never squares with the rigidity of their storytelling. As a result, “Operation Finale” doesn’t feel ambiguous so much as it feels like it lacks a point of view.
It doesn’t help that Kingsley plays the former Nazi official like he’s related to Hannibal Lecter, all diabolical cunning and four-dimensional chess. If evil were so easy to identify, Eichmann never would have made it into Argentina. But the movies tend to get skittish around Nazis, who they want to complicate but can’t let off the hook. More often than not, that results in a two-faced villain who only reveals his full cruelty after the hero discovers that evil can hide in even the smallest sliver of darkness. In that respect, “Operation Finale” follows in the dubious tradition of “Marathon Man” and “Apt Pupil,” its dramatic shortcuts undoing all of the subtleties the film was meant to explore.
At least we get the the tense, uneasy scenes where Kingsley and Isaac square off against each other in that cramped Argentinian safe house, Eichmann arguing that he was just a cog in a killing machine, and Malkin trying to find catharsis for the personal trauma that haunts all of the men on his team (and him in particular). The Nazi’s guilt is taken for granted, but “Operation Finale” argues that perpetrators of evil are as personally responsible for the suffering they cause as victims of evil are for the suffering they carry.
That’s why the airless (but action-packed) third act of this handsomely mediocre movie hinges on a moment of self-sacrifice, even though Weitz bungles the consequences. That’s also why Mossad went to Argentina in the first place — all this effort, just to get one man to sit in a glass box on the other side of the world so that he can be witnessed by the people he made to suffer. There is justice to that, and perhaps even a measure of closure. But everyone has to make their own peace with the evil they encounter, and sometimes that process can swallow entire generations. The abduction may have been called “Operation Finale,” but at least the movie understands that — even at the end — the mission is still far from over.
“Operation Finale” opens in theaters on August 24th.