There are times when telling a story simply and with as few frills as possible results in a film with the greatest dramatic impact. Such is the case with director Chris Weitz’s (About a Boy, A Better Life) telling of the capture and export of Adolph Eichmann, known as “the architect of the final solution,” by Israeli secret agents in May 1960. From a screenplay by Matthew Orton, Operation Finale is a taut work that covers the struggle by Mossad agents hellbent on capturing Eichmann (played as part snake, part snake charmer by Ben Kingsley) to convince those in power to let them go undercover when Eichmann is discovered hiding out in Argentina. We also see re-creations of the plotting, rehearsals and eventual extraction of the war criminal.
Since this all takes place only a few years after the war, those involved in the operation have deeply personal stories of loss during the Holocaust, including team leader Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), who has frequent visions (they aren’t really flashbacks, since he wasn’t there when it happened) of the death of his sister (Rita Pauls) and her children at the hands of Nazi firing squads. It’s these images that push him to make this mission happen when many are trying to forget those terrible times. It’s made clear to him that Eichmann should not be killed and needs to stand trial in Israel for this mission to have a worthy purpose.
Among those on the sizable team are Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll in a rare, non-comedic turn) and Malkin’s former lover Hanna Elian (French actress Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds). The initial discovery of Eichmann was due, of all things, to an innocent, early-stage love affair between Eichmann’s now-grown son Klaus (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus), whose family is secretly Jewish. Sylvia agrees to help the Mossad in positively identifying Eichmann and his whereabouts with his son and wife (Greta Scacchi). Some of the film’s most revealing moments come when Klaus takes Sylvia to what amounts to a Nazi party meeting, and you get a sense of both how many former Nazis live in Argentina and how many members of the local government also spout hate speech about Jews.
But once the agents are in Argentina and the plan begins to move forward, Operation Finale becomes something unexpected. What you think is going to be a fast-paced, highly secretive extraction becomes a wait-and-see game once Eichmann is in custody in a hidden safe house. A specially commissioned flight out of the country is delayed by more than a week, and with each passing day, the danger of getting caught increases. But what also happens in that time is that the agents get a bit stir crazy, snap at each other, debate whether killing their prisoner is a better idea, and even get to know their captive in unexpected ways. Eichmann also gets to know them and begins putting ideas in their heads about how he wasn’t really in charge of as much as others believe he was and that he was simply following orders (that old chestnut). In a short span of time, the tiny house becomes something of a powder keg.
Granted, anyone who knows even a little bit about the mission and Eichmann knows how this turns out, but Operation Finale finds ways to ramp up the tension, even with the predetermined outcome. Isaac does a terrific job as the linchpin around which all of the chaos rotates, while also having moments where his emotional stability is called into question as the ghosts of his lost family haunt him deeply. Director Weitz still relies on a few tropes of the spy game thriller to tell his story, but it feels appropriate. And let’s face it: the Mossad invented some of those tropes. The film works as a history lesson, a mission movie, and a story of the heart-breaking aftermath of an immense tragedy.
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