During the fall of the Third Reich, every Nazi who had the means and opportunity fled their crumbling empire of sin. Most fled to Argentina because of the country’s President, Juan Peron, and his close relationship with Germany. One such Nazi was Adolf Eichmann, deemed the architect of the Final Solution. Eichmann, under the name Ricardo Klement, hid in Argentina until Mossad agents hunted him down in an attempt to apprehend the war criminal. Director Chris Weitz‘s Operation Finale is the story of those Mossad agents and their secret mission.
From the outset, Operation Finale draws some similarities to Argo. Both are “hostage” films and spy-thrillers, which require undercover government agents and an extraction. While Argo is the evacuation of Americans from Iran, Operation Finale is the apprehension of a criminal. And much like Argo, Finale couches itself in sarcastic humor and the 70’s spy genre. Argo balances those disparate tones, comedy and urgency, well. Operation Finale does not.
The tone of Operation Finale is blurred and confusing. At one point, the Mossad team does one-upmanship of who lost the most in the Holocaust, to then bobbing to a rock n’ roll riff played on piano, to the Prime Minister of Israel visiting them within a span of two minutes.
The uneven tone is carried to Oscar Isaac’s playing of Peter Malkin, one of the lead agents. The screenplay is filled with sarcastic quips from Isaac. The landing of these quips depends upon the subject matter. A movie about the Holocaust doesn’t scream laughter. With those laughs there has to be an impassioned narrative, which the film lacks. A film about the Holocaust has to be more than some family members died and Eichmann is a bad guy. It has to be more than revenge. There has to be a philosophical end to that cause, and Operation Finale doesn’t provide that to us. Instead, it rests on the weightiness of its subject matter to carry it. This isn’t the fault of Isaac as he gives a passionate performance, he’s just misplaced in a film that doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy or a crusade.
Support is also given in the form of the cast. The Mossad team is comprised of Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), Isser (Lior Raz), Rafi (Nick Kroll), Zvi (Michael Aronov), Ephraim (Ohad Knoller), Moshe (Greg Hill), and Yaakov (Torben Liebrecht). All play characters who are emotional in their pursuit of Eichmann, yet the screenplay devotes little time to any individual story. In that regard, we’re deprived of fully grasping what these characters are fighting for, other than the obvious. The only character given any definition in that regard is Peter, who lost his sister Fruma during the war. He’s haunted by nightmares of her fate and paints the woods where she died at the hands of the Nazis. The reliance on Peter’s backstory in the second half of the film makes the tone even, which causes the Operation Finale to hit its stride.
The film is at its peak during the kidnapping and escape sequences, and the detainment of Eichmann. The action during the kidnapping and escape is thrilling as we see these operatives hang on every second of Eichmann’s extraction. The feeling is made palpable because unlike most spy films, where agents are shadowy figures with few ties to the mission, there’s no closer tie than the shared trauma of genocide that lies at the heart of Operation Finale.
The detainment scene is even more enthralling as Ben Kingsley undertakes the role of Eichmann. While the screenplay never gets to the psychological center of the Nazi war criminal, Kingsley studiously inhabits the “I was just following orders” mindset that many like Eichmann had. The scenes between him and Isaac are the most revealing for both characters, as they manipulae the other. Nevertheless, the film could have found a deeper philisphoical lesson had it examined the psyche of Eichmann in greater depth, while adding more backstories to the supporting Mossad agents.
The Eichmann and Peter sequences aren’t enough to make Operation Finale into what it desperately wants to be: a film that means something. Instead, the banal message it sends of what we already know: Nazis are bad, causes the film to lack any definition of heart.