MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Operation Finale’ or Argo 2.0 (Hollywood’s Faltering Take on Eichmann’s Capture)
A journeyman director with credits like The Twilight Saga: New Moon, The Golden Compass, and About a Boy wouldn’t seem like the best, let alone the proper fit for a subject as weighty, heavy, and significant like the capture and extraordinary rendition of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Final Solution that led to the genocide of six million Jews and countless others. Unfortunately, that assumption would be correct in the case of Chris Weitz and Operation Finale, the third effort — after The House on Garibaldi Street and The Man Who Captured Eichmann (both made-for-TV adaptations) — to depict the dangerously heroic efforts to bring Eichmann to justice. Weitz’s Hollywood experience and its emphasis on brute-force, common-denominator storytelling does, however, make him a perfect for turning Eichmann’s capture into something like Argo 2.0, a stirring, if ultimately shallow reverse rescue narrative heavily fictionalized to hit familiar emotional beats and generic, clichéd plot points, all in service of delivering palatable entertainment shorn of the complexity, depth, and profundity the subject matter truly deserves.
Weitz and first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton, working from various historical records, turn Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), the Mossad agent who initially captured Eichmann in Argentina with the help of an Israeli team of operatives skilled in spycraft, into the conflicted, trauma-stricken hero-protagonist from the moment we meet him impersonating a British officer to gain entry into the home of a suspected Nazi after the end of World War II. The mission goes predictably awry (Malkin’s men kill the “wrong Nazi” as if “wrong” and “Nazi” should be used in the same sentence), leaving a black mark on Malkin’s professional record, but when — years later — credible word comes of Eichmann’s location and identity, it’s Malkin who convinces Isser Harel (Lior Raz), the Mossad director, to greenlight a “capture and extract” operation on Argentinian soil, a mission that could not only go wrong, leaving the Mossad agents captured, imprisoned, or worse, but Israel, a nation-state barely celebrating its second decade in existence, an international pariah for violating Argentina’s sovereignty and multiple international laws.
Weitz and Orton round out Malkin’s team with an assortment of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, including Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent), Malkin’s (obligatory) ex and anesthesiologist, and Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), Ephraim Ilian (Ohad Knoller), Moshe Tabor (Greg Hill), Yaakov Gat (Torben Liebrecht), and Dani Shalom (Michael Benjamin Hernandez), individually and collectively characters defined less by recognizable traits or job/team functions than their physical differences (e.g., height, weight, eye color), their proximity to Malkin, and their collective status as members of Malkin’s team (It’s Malkin’s show, they just participate in it). Only Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov), team interrogator, stands out, primarily because he’s tasked with extracting Eichmann’s signature on an airline liability release form that will allow the Mossad team to extradite Eichmann from Argentina on an imminent Israeli flight.
If the “will Eichmann sign the release form or not” question sounds like a flimsy excuse to hang a full third of Operation Finale’s running time, it’s because it is (i.e., flimsy), a stock plot device with little or no bearing on actual history. The release form signature serves to give the team a clearly defined goal under time pressures (e.g., the impending, onetime, one way flight home, the increasingly desperate search by Argentina’s resident Nazis for one of their own). It also gives Malkin a reason to take over interrogation duties when Aharoni repeatedly fails to convince Eichmann to sign the release form. Malkin takes the simpler — and harder to believe — approach of superficially befriending Eichmann, sharing cigarettes, giving Eichmann a decidedly ill-advised, tense shave with a sharp razor, and otherwise flattering Eichmann’s outsized ego. Rather than appeal to Eichmann’s humanity (what little existed or remained), Weitz and Orton’s Malkin appeals to Eichmann’s ego, vanity, and narcissism.
For all the time-sensitive nature of Malkin and Eichmann’s interactions, however, they’re curiously, flatly inert. Kingsley’s Eichmann is a cold, hard man, reserved, watchful, but ultimately little more than a cipher. Only in the final moments before Eichmann’s concedes the futility of resistance does Eichmann’s civility crumble and his innate sadism emerge, torturing Malkin with descriptions of the fate of Malkin’s sister (Malkin knows she died in the Holocaust, but doesn’t know how or where). Eichmann’s outburst, however, feels forced, contrived less to create an emotional catharsis or release in the audience (the monster’s true face, finally revealed). Instead, Eichmann’s portrayal represents a different kind of banality than the “banality of evil” Hannah Arendt famously coined to describe Eichmann’s responsibility- and accountability-avoiding bureaucratic demeanor (he tried the “just following orders” defense without success). It represents Weitz and Orton’s disappointing paucity and dearth of imagination.