Directed by Chris Weitz
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Nick Kroll
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
2 hr. 2 min.
One of the most compelling images of television’s first 15 years was not seen live in the Unites States. Before the Telstar satellite first beamed pictures across the continents, video tape reels were flown to New York and around the globe, so the world could see Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, behind bulletproof glass, on trial in an Israeli courtroom.
Operation Finale is based on a true story: the May 1960 capture of Eichmann by Israeli Mossad operatives at a bus stop in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and written for the screen by Matthew Orton, one could describe this film as a taut, serious depiction of facts.
The details are well-known. Eichmann was a Nazi monster who eluded justice, living quietly for 15 years, raising a family in an Argentine community of expatriates from the Third Reich. How his cover was blown is fascinating, as are the nuts and bolts of the plan to catch him. How his captors get him from a safe house to an Israeli courtroom is the “make or break” heart of the movie.
It helps enormously that Ben Kingsley plays the hell out of Eichmann, from the top of his bed-knob skull down to his formerly jack-booted feet. The 75-year-old Kingsley has vibrated the screen with a myriad of roles, as both hero (Ghandi) and villain (gangster Don Logan in Sexy Beast). Kingsley nails Eichmann’s manipulative evil, as the former Nazi sits, masked and handcuffed, interrogated by the operatives charged with spiriting him out of Argentina. He uses all of his dastardly wiles to frustrate his captors, alternating condescension and cunning. Kingsley’s performance works effectively with the tension created by the close calls that nearly compromise the operation.
Another key to the story is Peter Malkin, the Mossad officer who physically collared Eichmann as he walked from a bus stop. (The scene is shot at the actual bus stop in Buenos Aires.) Malkin, who died in 2005, wrote the memoir Eichmann in My Hands, upon which Operation Finale is partially based.
Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Malkin, a man haunted by the death of his sister, Fruma, during the war. Another actor, more prone to scenery-chewing rage, may have ratcheted things up. Isaac, however, plays Malkin as a man whose tempest is internalized, its thunder rumbling in the distance of his psyche. He struggles with himself throughout.
Eichmann works the small kindnesses Malkin offers, finding his buttons and coldly pushing them. While rationalizing Nazi atrocities, Eichmann tells Malkin, “We’re all animals. Some of us just have bigger teeth.”
Other members of the Mossad team include Hanna Elian (French actress Mélanie Laurent), the doctor charged with keeping Eichmann sedated when need be; and Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll). It’s a well-cast movie, though the players are planets orbiting Kingsley’s sun.
Operation Finale provides some heart-quickening moments, but not like a fictional thriller. We see a depiction of retribution, a cathartic tale that tamps down the spine-tingling for a portrait in dedication. The Mossad agents, here, aren’t nearly as icy and single-minded as those in Munich. For some, the film may suffer because of that. Yet you cannot deny that given the horror, the tragedy, the gravity of Nazi atrocities in World War II, what is resolved is worthwhile. The portrayal of the operatives’ risk-taking and dedication yields satisfaction at the sacrifice of pulse-pounding intensity. Historians are good with that. Most filmgoers are, too.