‘Operation Finale’: How can the capture of Adolf Eichmann seem so formulaic?
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All the pieces are in place for “Operation Finale” to be an unsettling and powerful drama.
It’s based on the true story of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency undertaking a bold and risky mission some 15 years after the end of World War II — a raid to capture arguably the most powerful and notorious surviving architect of the Holocaust, one Adolf Eichmann.
The great Ben Kingsley stars as Eichmann. The brilliant Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the intelligence agent who led the mission.
The eclectic (and very effective supporting cast) includes Melanie Laurent as an Israeli doctor who reunites with her former lover Peter on this vital mission; Peter Strauss (remember “Rich Man, Poor Man”?) as a blind old man who tips off the Israelis about Eichmann’s whereabouts; Greta Scacchi as Eichmann’s wife, Vera, and Nick Kroll, best known for his comedic roles, doing fine work as a determined Mossad operative.
We know we’re going to get some intense, heated exchanges between Malkin and Eichmann. We expect there will be flashbacks to the unspeakable atrocities committed by Eichmann and other casually monstrous Nazis during the Holocaust. We assume there will be some pulse-pounding sequences when the Israelis nab Eichmann — and when they try to get out of Argentina alive.
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Everything unfolds pretty much as we anticipate, and at times “Operation Finale” IS gripping and involving — but more often, the story slows to a crawl and actually becomes less involving just when we should be holding our breath. This is a well-made but formulaic, by-the-numbers drama.
One of the major problems is for all the historical impact of this story, the particulars (at least as laid out in the screenplay) aren’t all that intense or heart-thumping. Malkin and about a half-dozen other Israeli operatives arrive in Argentina with cover identities, set up operations in a safe house, make a positive I.D. on Eichmann — and nab him one night after he gets off a bus.
Once they get Eichmann to the safe house and hole up while waiting out an unexpected delay in the plan to get him to Israel to stand trial, there’s a long (far too long) stretch that’s all about the team trying to get Eichmann to sign a certain document. (There’s a certain “Casablanca,” letters-of-transit feel to this plot device. Would it have been that difficult for a team of top-flight secret agent types to find a copy of Eichmann’s signature and forge the dang thing?)
Kingsley plays Eichmann, Hitler’s transportation henchman, as a dispassionate accountant type — the personification of “the banality of evil,” the phrase Hannah Arendt invoked to describe Eichmann when she covered his war crimes trial. (He coolly maintains his war was fought with numbers on a sheet of paper and that he was simply a soldier following orders.) And yet within the tightly controlled performance, Sir Ben adds some fascinating eccentricities, e.g., when a blindfolded Eichmann is spoon-fed his meal, he sits ramrod straight and chews his food with rapid-fire precision, like a bird of prey.
Director Chris Weitz (whose resume includes everything from writing “American Pie” to directing one of the “Twilight Saga” movies) overplays his hand on numerous occasions, as when Malkin takes out a straight razor to give the handcuffed Eichmann a shave — and yes, we get that Malkin could end Eichmann’s life right then and there with that ominous blade. (In another scene, Eichmann abruptly shifts into Hannibal Lecter gear, taunting his captor with a horrifically detailed description of how the man’s sister and her children could have been murdered at Eichmann’s directive, right in front of Eichmann.)
The overbearing score doesn’t help, as it often puts exclamation points on scenes that shouldn’t require such forced punctuation. And the up-and-down romance between Malkin and the doctor feels wedged in and unnecessary — and then becomes a confusing footnote.
Of course, “Operation Finale” ends with the obligatory photos of the real Malkin (a true legend and hero) and the real Eichmann, and brief footage of Eichmann’s trial, which was televised the world over, lasted nearly two months and featured the testimony of more than 100 witnesses, many of them survivors of the Holocaust.
Those brief moments are more memorable and carry more of an emotional punch than anything we’ve seen in the previous two hours.
MGM presents a film directed by Chris Weitz and written by Matthew Orton. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language). Running time: 123 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.