You don’t expect a movie about The Holocaust to be flippant, glib almost.
But Chris Weitz’s “Operation Finale,” based on a Matthew Orton script about the Israeli abduction of Nazi “Architect of the Final Solution” Adolph Eichmann from Argentina back in 1960, leans more towards “Argo” than “Munich” on the true-stories-about-secret missions scale.
It manages a few jokes, Mossad agents cracking themselves up about the “International Jewish Conspiracy” they’re participating in, and a general jauntiness that comes from casting the newly-swashbuckling Oscar Isaac as the lead, Sir Ben Kingsley as the droll face of evil and funnyman Nick Kroll in a supporting role.
It opens as serious as a heart attack, though, a failed attempt to bring Eichmann to justice that led Peter Malkin (Isaac) and his team to nab and then murder the wrong man in Austria in 1954. That’s a sober reminder of how difficult this sort of manhunt was before DNA testing, computers and the Internet. It underscores how the then-new state of Israel let a desire for revenge and clumsiness cause it to surrender the moral high ground when the whole world was ceding it to them.
A few years later, a new tip comes in from a blind Argentinian Jew (Peter Strauss) whose daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) brought home a boy named Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) for dinner one night in Buenos Aires.
Could it be? It could. He may be a “family man” working at the local Mercedes factory, but this Ricardo Clement seems a lot more German than Argentine. If only the Israelis knew the many exclusive German clubs and conservative, Anti-Semitic political gatherings where Eichmann told his story, little lectures about how he was “fighting for my country,” “following orders in a war,” “merely a cog in a machine, digging its way to Hell.”
Tripping the doting Dad up is left up to the girl Sylvia (Richardson), raised Catholic to protect her by a father who remembers the world’s worst just a few years before.
At least he remembers. A dozen years after the Nuremberg trials, the world has wanted to forget. That’s why Mossad leader Isser Hare (Lior Raz), reluctant to waste time on a possible wild goose chase, relents. That’s why Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale, spot on) endorses the effort to catch a Nazi and bring him to justice. “We will try our executioners,” he declares. They will remind the world and tell the story of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Malkin is brought late to into the game by Rafi Eitan (Kroll), and with good reason. He screwed up, and in a few brushstrokes, the script lets us see how. Peter is a smart ass. He doesn’t read his homework. He goes with his gut. Who knows how “guilty” the Austrian his earlier team murdered in front of his little boy actually was?
Peter has history with the doctor (Mélanie Laurent) the team needs to sedate their prisoner, and since her last mission ended up with a dead patient-prisoner, she’s not happy to get back into this, either.
But she joins, and all told eight people are flown, with fake identities, wildly different flight itineraries and U.S. dollars to Argentina to stalk, catch and spirit the ever-suspicious fugitive out of a country loaded with Germans, unrepentant fascists and raving anti-Semites in politics, the priesthood and every walk of life.
You don’t need to recall the story of the Eichmann kidnapping or have seen other films on this to know how much of it will play out. Things go wrong, there’s a lot of time for captors and prisoner to interact, plenty of scenes for the formidable Kingsley to add charismatic snap and crackle to what Hannah Arendt famously labeled “the banality of evil.”
Isaac turns his back on the “Star Wars” paychecks for a role he can sink his teeth into, a chance to go toe-to-toe not with a special effects green screen, but with one of the greatest screen actors ever. Isaac ably suggests a man haunted by nightmares of how his sister and her children might have died in German hands, of his own failures and the competing agendas on his “team.”
Capture Eichmann? Hothead Moshe (Greg Hill) says “We should be putting him down, like a mad dog,” while patient interrogator Zvi (Michael Aranov) is, like the others, waiting for Peter to screw up again.
The “glib” I mentioned surfaces every time the Mossad guys almost admiringly compare notes with how the Russians and Nazis torture, when Kroll’s Eitan answers an obvious question with, “Is the Pope Catholic?”
That joking around won’t be to every taste, but I think this piece of Holocaust history merits the ticking clock thriller/light touches mixed with horror treatment Weitz aims for. The odd laugh doesn’t lessen the gravitas, Kingsley’s compelling performance doesn’t exonerate the guilty and the history the world was already forgetting merited a “show trial,” a teachable moment, its first worldwide wake-up call — “Never Forget.”
Worth remembering when Nazis are being normalized into “very good people” by those who never learned or hope the rest of us have forgotten.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Michael Aronov, Nick Kroll, Greta Scacchi
Credits:Directed by Chris Weitz, script by Matthew Orton. An MGM release.
Running time: 1:55