There’s plenty of entertainment to be had when it comes to films about espionage, revenge, and basically anything related to World War II. There’s even a nice bit of a Jewish/Israeli niche, in the form of films like Munich and The Boys From Brazil. And hell, when you’ve got such star caliber as Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, you just know you’re in for a cinematic treat!
Unfortunately, Operation Finale managed to give lie to these cinematic truths. The film is well enough made, but honestly, I was bored most of the time. Author Hannah Arendt coined the term, “The Banality of Evil” in reference to Adolf Eichmann, the “Architect of the Final Solution.” Well, this film, about Eichmann’s capture in Argentina 15 years after the war, is pretty much that phrase borne out on the screen.
It should have been an utterly fascinating movie. Kingsley plays Eichmann, the highest SS officer to escape Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, fleeing to Austria and then eventually Argentina, where Nazi sympathizers smuggled and welcomed him in as a tool for their own Jewish extermination goals. Peter Malkin, played by Isaac, is the Mossad agent who led the operation to bring him to justice, and was the man who personally captured Eichmann. The two have several scenes together, debating the merits of his capture, the legitimacy of his upcoming trial, and how much “following orders” can excuse atrocity.
But almost all of it fell flat. Kingsley, as dignified as ever, seemed to be phoning in his performance. The only flashes of his usual brilliance coming in the contrast between his stoic acknowledgment of his actions and his genuine affection for family. Oscar Isaac, looking like a young George Clooney, is basically still playing Poe Dameron from the new Star Wars movies, inserting snarky banter and sarcastic one-liners rather than develop Malkin’s character. He doesn’t give a bad performance per se, it’s just more that it feels like he finished filming The Last Jedi and decided not to shelve the character. Beyond the dialogue, this version of Peter Malkin is brash, headstrong, quick to action without thinking of consequences, and is outright insubordinate, just like Poe.
There’s not much help from the supporting cast, either. Haley Lu Richardson is essentially wasted as an Argentine Jewish girl who falls for Eichmann’s son, setting off the events of the film. Mélanie Laurent is presented as a compassionate doctor and reluctant participant in the operation, but after her introduction is just used for a shoehorned romantic subplot. The wonderfully versatile Nick Kroll is little more than ballast.
The plotting is also, sadly, just a hodgepodge of cliché. Just about every convenient obstacle is thrown into the works to create hollow suspense during the climactic escape, to the point that Ben Affleck and the rest of the Argo crew are like, “Really? What more can you toss at them?” The fermenting Nazi movement in Argentina is so over the top it’s almost a living caricature. At all times there’s at least one member of Malkin’s team who just wants to kill Eichmann and has to be held back. Before Malkin takes over the “negotiations” with Eichmann, another agent uses a more aggressive approach, so it’s literally a good cop/bad cop dynamic without the bad cop knowing he’s doing it. Even one of the major turning points in the film involves a young Jewish girl working at the Mossad safe house stealing money and getting caught trying to convert it. Literally, for the purpose of the film, the entire operation is almost undone by a greedy Jew. I guess you can say they spread the tropes around and leave some to both sides? Oi.
Still, there are some things worth recommending here. First, the cinematography is on point. The lighting schemes are just tremendous. Second, Alexandre Desplat continues to cement his status as the greatest film composer of his generation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets another Oscar nomination next year.
And as for the actual story, there are two really great moments. The first is the physical capture of Eichmann. Mirroring what happened in real life, Isaac and Kingsley get the most out of the extraction. Secondly, while the dynamic between them was painfully forced, their conversations were compelling on a philosophical level, served by the two leads putting in their best effort for these scenes. There’s a wonderful stage play that could be made using just these scenes that could sweep the Tonys if done right. I just wish the overall story surrounding them was more compelling.
So yeah, if you were thinking of taking this one in after a few weeks of weighing your options, I’d say look elsewhere. It might not be a bad move for a night in when it comes out on Blu-Ray, but really, this was just a subpar outing that showed enough glimmers and hints of brilliance with such rich material to make you realize the missed opportunity.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite WWII-adjacent film? Was my headline pun in bad taste, or just a groaner? Let me know!