Operation Finale tricks you into thinking it’s of higher quality than it is by the weight of its subject matter, but when you look back a lot it’s kind of hokey, especially the entire first act.
A good example is when Mossad agent Peter (Oscar Isaac) tells his superiors he wants to recruit former colleague Hanna (Mélanie Laurent) in the mission he’s charged with. Some dark past between them is hinted at – maybe a romantic falling out – so when he goes to the hospital where Hanna now works as a doctor to try and talk her into it, we’re not surprised when she dismisses and ignores him.
But in a suspiciously easy turn of events and without any further prompting, she agrees to go on the mission and any animosity that might have given their characters some depth is forgotten, both of them soon smoking, dancing, laughing and working together like nothing has ever happened. Maybe it was a problem that arose from editing the film down from a much longer version.
The entire pre-mission part of the film is full of similar character dynamics that go nowhere. The script by Matthew Orton only seems interested in what comes after, knowing it has to spend some time setting up real people but not terribly interested in doing so very well.
It’s the true story of the identification and capture of former Nazi bigwig Adolf Eichmann, regarded as the ringleader of The Holocaust. After a local Jewish girl living in Buenos Aires, Sylvia (Hayley Lu Richardson) is attracted to and starts dating a handsome young German boy, Klaus (Joe Alwyn), she’s shocked to discover his antisemitism and adherence to a local group of Nazis still dedicated to the edicts of Adolf Hitler.
When she meets Klaus’ family, including the soft-spoken gentleman (Ben Kingsley) Klaus says raised him after his own father died in the war, she reports to her blind father that they’re living among Nazis and that her boyfriend’s supposed Uncle might be one of the biggest of them.
The news travels all the way to Jerusalem where Mossad puts together a team of what appears to be pencil pushers as much as they are spies. Weeks later, Peter finds himself in a grassy field staring at a remote house in South America through binoculars, the rest of the team scrambling to confirm the identity of the man calling himself Ricardo Clemente.
The movie takes on a spy thriller element as Eichmann is identified and the plan to grab him hatched. Once done, they need to keep him hidden in the safe house they’ve prepared until the El Al flight he’s due to be snuck out on leaves – Argentina, having harboured several high-profile Nazis and rejected Israel’s formal attempts to extradite them, will take none too kindly to a man they consider a citizen being kidnapped on their soil.
To make matters worse, the local Nazi brass – led by scary firebrand anti-Semite Carlos (Pêpê Rapazote) – organise thugs to find and make short work of Eichmann’s abductors when Klaus and Eichmann’s wife report him missing.
But the El Al flight is delayed, and the team realise they’ll be stranded in hostile territory for up to a week along with their quarry. In that time Eichmann (who’s admitted to being who they think he is kind of quickly) goes to work on them psychologically as best he can, particularly Peter.
The aim is to have him sign a statement admitting who he is and his part in The Holocaust, and as Peter starts to take a softer approach to try and turn him. Understanding and responding to Eichmann as a human being, his team worry about the notorious Nazi’s effect on him, even though he repeatedly claims he wanted (and had) no place in mass murder, he was just a glorified accountant.
As history proves, they did get Eichmann back to Israel and the scene of doing so will remind you a little bit of the rescue sequence in Argo. The true events probably weren’t so breakneck, knuckle-biting and just-in-the-knick-of-time as depicted here, but there’s nothing wrong with the dramatic license taken – it’s a spy thriller as much as a drama.
But that also makes it kind of a potboiler, and while there’s nothing wrong with that either, director Chris Weitz seemed instead to want to make it a worthy drama unpacking and investigating the banality of evil. As Eichmann, Kingsley is as effortlessly sublime as he always is, but the scenes he shares with Isaac (no slouch, but not given much to do here) do have that dramatic weight, and as such they feel like they’re from a different movie.
It means the tone veers a bit too much off whatever centre it was going for, and none of the individual elements stand out enough.