Movie Review: Operation Finale
We’re all animals. Some of us just have bigger teeth than others.
Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s capture is the subject of a new movie, Operation Finale.
Based on the true story of the daring 1960 apprehension of one of the Third Reich’s most wanted fugitives, the movie is a mostly factual re-enactment of how secret agents from Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, plucked “Ricardo Clement” off the streets of a Buenos Aires suburb and ultimately forced the real Eichmann to finally confront justice and face so many of those whose lives he attempted to ruin.
Eichmann was one of the key architects of The Final Solution, the attempted mass extermination of the Jewish race and culture. After World War II ended, Eichmann and his family successfully made it to Argentina, where the ex-Nazi assumed a faux identity and attempted to forget his notorious past. Fifteen years after overseeing some of the most brutal crimes in human history, Eichmann must have felt some sense of ease at cheating the hangman. However, thanks to the persistence of Mossad and the dedicated agents willing to risk their own lives so that others could recoup some measure of peace in theirs, the hangman ultimately won. Once captured and secretly airlifted to Israel, justice prevailed.
Aside from the many lessons we can and should (but often don’t) learn from the past — the hunt, capture, and trial of Eichmann is a perfect blueprint for a suspense thriller. After all, nothing in this story needs to be made up. Just stick to the script of what happened, and movie audiences are certain to be riveted by the triumph of good versus evil.
Consider this riveting documentary of the real Eichmann facing trial in Israel.
Sadly, Operation Finale fails — both as a historical guidepost and as movie entertainment. Despite good intentions and faithful adherence to actual events, the film lacks energy and substance. Humorless, dull, often meandering, and surprisingly anti-climactic given the ponderous subject matter, the film fizzles and ultimately flops in its burden to rise to the level of the real course of events.
Directed by Chris Weitz (American Pie; The Twilight Saga: New Moon; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; About a Boy), Operation Finale is his first foray into historical drama. Weitz seems hopelessly lost tackling this new element, which seems way out of his usual comfort zone of crowd-pleasing films targeted mostly at teenagers. It’s as though the director wanted to take on a serious film project but then lacked both the experience and confidence in his material to make a film worthy of its weight.
Much of the blame for a disappointing movie rests with Matthew Orton for penning a lifeless script. Based on a quick IMDB search, Orton appears to be a first-time screenwriter. His lack of previous work clearly shows. Fully a third of the film is entirely pointless, showing Mossad agents sitting around drinking wine, doing and discussing things totally unrelated to the mission. It’s wasted time and space. And frankly, it’s maddening.
In real life, Eichmann was held captive in a Buenos Aires safehouse for nine long days while his captors patiently awaited the go-ahead for evacuation out of Nazi-friendly Argentina via a covert El Al Airlines flight back to Israel. Most movie scenes take place in dank, dimly lit rooms with a defiant Eichmann somehow attempting to justify his coldly calculated actions during the war. There are genuine moments of back and forth conversation on much larger questions of morality worth pondering — namely about individuals bearing responsibility for institutional crimes. “Just following orders” is no defense in this case, however, especially when Eichmann was so often barking out the commands. Yet, to the film’s credit, Eichmann isn’t portrayed as the usual one-dimensional Nazi monster so prevalent in many war dramas. Despite his murderous past and unquestionable guilt in what was an assembly line of mass murder, Eichmann comes across as very human. Harrah Arendt, who covered the Eichmann trial and later wrote a book about it, starkly and famously described the machinery which caused the death of 6 million Jews as “the banality of evil.” Perhaps that’s what makes it so scary.
Actor Ben Kingsley, once so perfect as concentration camp inmate Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List (the best movie ever made, in my opinion), is equally as convincing playing just as challenging a role opposite the historical spectrum. Kingsley gives former SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann a human quality he probably doesn’t deserve. Somehow, Kingsley manages to elevate the substandard material he’s given and steals every scene merely with his presence.
Also very good is Oscar Isaac (so excellent in A Most Violent Year opposite Jessica Chastain), playing the lead Mossad agent who lost his beloved mother in the Holocaust and who must somehow contain his desire for revenge while he interrogates Eichmann inside the safehouse. The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are quite good and probably the only memorable aspect of what otherwise is a forgettable film.
The remainder of the actors and their roles are poorly defined and largely irrelevant. An unnecessary love interest seems ridiculously out of place. Presumably, it was some attempt by filmmakers to avoid an all-male cast.
I wish instead Operation Finale had focused far more on Eichmann’s trial in Israel. His defense strategy, the counterarguments he makes, and his own eyewitness testimony recounting his self-admitted role in one of the worst crimes in human history is the movie worth making. Half a century later, watching old clips of Eichmann flanked by Israeli Army soldiers while shifting in his seat uncomfortably behind a plate of bulletproof glass, just feet away from his victims who lost their entire families, is far more interesting as drama — painful so often as it is to watch. Actual court records of testimony, including Eichmann’s pitiful explanations and pathetic attempts to justify what happened, is far more compelling than somewhat fictionalized re-enactments of discussions that supposedly took place in a dark room somewhere back in Argentina.
Finally, to the Israeli’s credit, they provided the world with a great service and taught us an important historical lesson. It would have been so easy to walk up behind Eichmann on that dark Buenos Aires street and put a bullet between his eyes with a silencer. Justice would have been done, at little risk or cost. However, Israel recognized and hoped that Eichmann’s capture and public trial would show that those who commit evil acts in the future shall ultimately face similar consequences. Well, at least we can dream.
Sadly, monsters live on. Right now, despots are on the rise throughout the world. While events may never again be reduced to the horrors of the Holocaust, the dangers of history repeating itself are very real. Otherwise nice men and women who look and behave normally can be capable of terrible acts under extraordinary circumstances. It’s not just bullets that do the killing — it’s also bureaucrats. Many potential Eichmanns are among us.
Grade: 3 on a 10 scale