In an era when the word “Nazi” is being overused as an insult to the point of meaninglessness and being cherished as a badge of honor by warped minds with zero sense of morality or history, perhaps it’s a wise time to return to one of the classic Hollywood subgenres of yore: the Nazi-huntin’ adventure flick.
Operation Finale could have taken the crowd-pleasing shoot-’em-up route and very few who matter would’ve complained or been surprised with a mainstream director at the helm like Chris Weitz, whose credits include The Golden Compass, the second Twilight, and the original American Pie. The results are surprisingly low-key, mostly faithful to the original event, and curiously devoid of either bullets or accurately sickening Holocaust violence…which makes sense given that Eichmann wasn’t caught till 1960.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Remember those stories about Nazis escaping Germany at the end of World War II and fleeing to live out their years in hiding in South America? The sci-fi elements of The Boys from Brazil and the oblique running gag about Dwight Schrute’s extended family can sometimes downplay the reality of the situation, which Operation Finale is here to remind new generations was a very real thing. When the movie joins the timeline in progress, former Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann (Sir Ben Kingsley, playing the dire opposite of his Schindler’s List bookkeeper), dubbed “the Architect of the Holocaust” in copious places including the movie itself, had been living thousands of miles away in scenic Argentina with his wife and kids, working at the local Mercedes-Benz plant under the name Ricardo Klement, and enjoying life surrounded by fellow expatriates. All things considered, the 1950s were pretty good to their community.
His new life began to unravel after his son Klaus — who for some reason never assumed a pseudonym — opened his big mouth to a Jewish girl he was dating, who couldn’t help noticing his conspicuous last name or his constant bragging about all the Jews who were murdered during his father’s stint as Nazi prisoner transport coordinator. Word of his whereabouts reached Mossad, Israel’s answer to the CIA, who took a keen interest in tracking down the highest-ranking Nazi officer who was still at large and not held accountable at Nuremberg. An undercover team was sent in to retrieve Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial for innumerable counts of genocide and genocide-adjacent offenses.
Spoiler: in Act One, they get him. Act Two is much like Death and the Maiden, in which Kingsley also played a former oppressor in hiding in South America, taken captive and interrogated in a dark, tiny room by an actor famous for playing a space hero, who pressured him to confess to his terrible crimes. The main difference here is Kingsley’s character is a German rather than Latin American monster and is Based on a True Story rather than on a fictional play. In place of that film’s furious Sigourney Weaver, here the captor who spends the most time with Our Villain is real-life agent Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac with slightly less bravado than Poe Dameron, but still an occasional quip and probably just enough dreaminess in pocket for his superfans out there. As with The Last Jedi, though, he doesn’t necessarily win every conversation.
In Act Three, Our Heroes must escape a hostile foreign land, making sensitive arrangements for a clandestine airport getaway; a few key employees stand between them and freedom, and the day is saved by one guy with useful papers. In other words, it’s the Argo reboot no one saw coming. (For the real Eichmann extraction team, their departure wasn’t quite as stressful. But Hollywood does need its climaxes.)
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Malkin’s teammates include Nick Kroll — a.k.a. The Douche from Parks & Rec and Comedy Central’s Kroll Show — effective in a rare serious role as a field supervisor; and Mélanie Laurent, whose Nazi-hunting cred includes abetting the immolation of a theater full of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. This time she’s relegated to the anesthetics department, though no one lets her have any matches, just to be safe.
Greta Scacchi (The Player, Presumed Innocent) is Eichmann’s Concerned Wife. The Jewish family that stumbles across the Eichmanns comprises ’70s star Peter Strauss (Rich Man, Poor Man; Masada) and Haley Lu Richardson, one of the victims from Shyamalan’s Split.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? One could settle for what should be the obvious “Nazis bad” and the common post-WWII refrain “Never forget”, though Eichmann certainly tried. Even when captured and identified, he deflects blame and insists he was just doing his job. “Merely a cog in a machine digging straight to Hell”, as the movie puts it. Some crimes have no statute of limitations. Some sins don’t merely fade away with time or receive default forgiveness if one evades justice, responsibility, accountability, and penance long enough. And no, living far away from your homeland by your own choosing does not count as sufficient punishment for deeds like Eichmann’s.
Throughout the film, Our Heroes confront a number of tough choices and hard lessons including:
- Persuading a prospective defendant to sign papers making his conviction all the easier takes much more than merely yelling at him
- Lowering our defenses and allowing small vulnerabilities can facilitate talks with Evil, but be prepared for the scorpion to sting as soon as he sees the chink in your armor
- Justice > revenge
- Even the cruelest among us have loved ones, their driving force and their weak spot
- During a mission is not the best time for flirting
Nitpicking? Isaac and Kingsley modulate their performances to such mannered frequencies, Finale is almost too low-key. Both are wily in their verbal interplay, each trying to gain something from the other, in a fashion so calm and level-headed that their pulses barely fluctuate at times. I had expected maybe a reprise of Kingsley’s screaming from Sexy Beast, but instead he takes the shrewd approach of a man clearly convinced he still has his dignity. Eventually there’s an escalation of tempers, but it’s late in the game and sadly brief.
So much of the focus is on Malkin and Eichmann’s conversations that the threat of Nazi search teams around their hideaway never quite ratchets up the tension where it needs to be for a true heist thriller. And that lack of momentum softens the airport climax, a lot less suspenseful than Argo‘s by comparison.
So what’s to like? There’s something to be said for supporting a Nazi-hunting movie on principle, of course. Viewers who prefer nuanced engagement over macho hysterics may particularly appreciate Kingsley’s rendition of a commanding officer who thinks he’s in charge of every situation and can game his way through any opposition, only to find himself slowly wearing down and bracing himself for an increasingly inevitable fate. Or viewers might prefer to live vicariously through the angriest guy on Team Mossad (relative newcomer Greg Hill), who would rather take the Scott Evil approach to their Eichmann problem (“I have a gun in my room…”) and in his own way is more of a hotheaded Poe Dameron than Isaac is in this ensemble.
Meanwhile, Isaac (who’s also credited as producer on this film) takes the team’s hardest job for himself: convincing a stubborn, intelligent, unrepentant opponent to sign away his freedom of his own volition, sincerely and without deceitful trickery. If you can buy into that mission and the subtle emotional seesawing between the two debaters, then Operation Finale works as a reminder that sometimes key moments in world history weren’t in the explosions or the body counts, but in the quiet negotiations on the down-low.
Bonus points also go to Alexandre Desplat’s heist-eriffic score, buoyed by a propulsive army of percussionists that includes the largest number of xylophone-family instrumentalists that I’ve ever heard in one place since junior high band class. It goes without saying Desplat’s are way better.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Operation Finale end credits, though if you’re interested in learning more about the Eichmann affair after viewing, the National Security Archive at George Washington University has an enormous stack of hundreds of related, declassified source documents from the ’30s to the ’60s that the public can view at will, some with more redactions than others. Random highlights include Eichmann’s 1937 SS personnel record, a memo concerning the possible publication of memoirs he’d been working on prior to his capture, and a brief 1962 communique about the time an attempt was made to deport him back to Argentina. IF you’re a youngster who’s never seen what documents look like on microfilm or microfiche, there’s your chance to dive into truly arcane history.