MOVIE REVIEW: 'Operation Finale' takes liberties with history, relies on Hollywood feel-good formula for a tough subject

Posted: August 31, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer who managed the logistics of the Holocaust, stands in a bullet-proof glass booth during his war crimes trial in Chris Weitz’ Operation Finale.

I can think of few creatures crueler or sadder than Adolf Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil about his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, and famously found in him nothing more than ordinary human weakness. He was no Bond villain, just a schmuck who did what he was told, a human cog in a murder machine without the character to disobey. He was just like us, Arendt concluded. This denied the Nazis any romance or glamour, and upset a lot of people.

Operation Finale is a safe movie that does its best not to upset anyone. It's not a work of political and/or moral philosophy. It's a Hollywood movie that does what Hollywood movies traditionally do: Reassure the audience that the good guys eventually win, even over the glamorously evil.

It purports to tell a "true story" via a three-act structure designed to engage and entertain an audience. So the agreed-upon facts are supplemented by screenwriterly embellishments. A bit more tension is introduced, a romance is suggested. In the end, the finished film feels old-fashioned. Handsomely finished, it provides the audience with a dose of uplift: We can be better than we once were. We must be better than we once were.

This is fine. Screenwriter Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) are under no obligation to teach us history or to raise ponderable ideas about the limits of the human imagination. They made a movie about the hunting of a top Nazi. You can always read more about Adolf Eichmann and his role in the murder of millions of people. There is a lot of literature.

It is hard, however, to resist writing about the movie they did not make -- the one about an Eichmann who was exactly who he claimed to be, an utterly ordinary man not driven by ideology but by the simple desire to please his superiors and advance his career. The one who was neither a sociopath nor evil genius. The one that Hannah Arendt wrote about in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The one just like most of us.

But that would have been a horror movie, and Operation Finale is conceived as an Argo-style thriller.

It is watchable enough, especially as Mossad agents plan the operation to snatch Eichmann (Ben Kingsley, with his trademark silences and disdainful containment) off the streets of a working-class Buenos Aires suburb in 1960. This part incorporates a lot of the known facts -- the Mossad came to suspect that Eichmann was living in Argentina after his eldest son Klaus (Joe Alwyn) began dating the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who recognized his name.

That's right -- Adolf Eichmann's son kept his real name after the family went into hiding in Argentina. It's one of the many fascinating details that Operation Finale doesn't fudge, and part of the reason the movie's first half manages to feel genuinely compelling. Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, coping with a lot of generic lines), the Mossad agent who physically manhandled Eichmann (living under the alias Ricardo Klement) really did wear gloves because he didn't want to touch Eichmann with his bare hands. (Those gloves were cast in bronze and are part of a Tel Aviv museum exhibit about Eichmann's capture and trial.)

And there really was a moment when the agents feared their operation had been blown because Eichmann failed to get off the bus he habitually took home from work. (For some reason, he took a later bus on the night of the operation.)

Unfortunately, once the agents have Eichmann in their safe house, the movie has to find ways to invent tension, and Malkin and Eichmann embark on an unfortunately generic game of psychological cat and mouse. In real life, the extraction of Eichmann from Argentina went fairly smoothly; here it is complicated by the need to have Eichmann sign a document saying he was going to Israel to voluntarily stand trial.

Malkin, in real life considered one of the greatest Mossad agents ever, is portrayed here as a loose cannon who takes it upon himself to convince Eichmann to sign the waiver even though he'd been instructed not to speak to the prisoner.

While the psychological duel between the characters may have been what drew actors the caliber of Isaac and Kingsley to the script, none of this drama really happened. The captured Eichmann was meek, giving agents his real name within minutes. He signed any documents put before him compliantly. According to Isser Harel, the Mossad director in charge of the operation, once in custody Eichmann "behaved like a scared, submissive slave whose one aim was to please his new masters."

Similarly, while Eichmann's family suspected that Israelis had abducted Eichmann, they did not notify the Argentinian police because they didn't want to alert anyone that Eichmann had been in the country.

In the movie, a group of armed Nazis, including some police, go in a house to search for Eichmann and his captors. We get the sense that expatriate Nazis operated pretty openly in Argentina in those days. (Accurately, the movie shows Klaus Eichmann unfurling a Nazi flag at the family house on Garibaldi Street after his father was spirited away to Israel.)

While the film is obviously not afraid to take liberties with the truth -- Dr. Yonah Elian, a male anesthesiologist who was part of the team and sedated Eichmann before he was transported back to Israel is transformed into Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) in order to provide Malkin with a romantic foil -- it curiously sticks to facts that could be harmlessly altered. Eleven Mossad agents were sent to Argentina as part of the operation, so we get all 11, even Nick Kroll as the team's pianist. And Greg Hill plays Moshe Tabor, the Mossad agent who most wants to kill Eichmann with his bare hands, even more than Malkin does.

Operation Finale hits all the usual beats, and will therefore reassure a lot of moviegoers, but it avoids every opportunity to delve beneath the surface. Kingsley's Eichmann is just another overcivilized monster. Which is what we want him to be.

Mossad agents (from left) Ephraim Ilian (Ohad Knoller), Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent), Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), Zvi Aharon...

MovieStyle on 08/31/2018

Operation Finale

83

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Pepe Rapazote, Greta Scacchi

Director: Chris Weitz

Rating: PG-13, for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes