Operation Finale reduces famed Nazi trial to one man's catharsis
In August 2017, neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a woman was killed when a man described as a “Nazi sympathizer” plowed his car through a crowd. In March of this year, a Holocaust denier won the Republican primary for Illinois’ third Congressional district. In August, the last known Nazi collaborator living in the United States was deported. Nazism is still making headlines and is still a threat, but, for some reason, Operation Finale — a film concerning the capture of Adolf Eichmann, a top-ranking Nazi official — manages to feel irrelevant.
Taking place 15 years after the end of World War II, Operation Finale tells of Eichmann living in Argentina under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement, discovered by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the head of a team of agents on a mission to secretly capture Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial, and Eichmann is played by Ben Kingsley.
The film has its moments. Eichmann tries to manipulate his captors by declaring himself a Palestinian Jew falsely captured and reciting the Hebrew prayer of “Shema,” toying with the sensitivities of the Jewish agents who have all lost somebody. Climactic moments of great sound and disquieting silence are both powerful in the film. But there is something often lacking throughout. There is not much tension, there is little sense of the plot moving forward in a compelling way.
Promotional materials for Operation Finale highlighted the psychological torture of keeping Eichmann captive as he taunts his captors for their losses in the Holocaust. The moments are cherry-picked from sustaining bits of film that make it feel like this historical retelling is compelling. But there are too few of those actually present to feel much suspense. With Eichmann’s trial as highly publicized as it was, there was no doubt that Eichmann will make it safely to Israel, and without the movie providing its own form of compelling drama or suspense, Operation Finale is largely a waste of time.
The standout moment of the entire film is a monologue delivered by Simon Russell Beale as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. More than stating the point of capturing Eichmann, David evokes millennia of Jewish suffering with his somber, yet determined speech. There is great historical resonance to this mission, to the messages being delivered by the Israeli government in their trial of Eichmann — however the messages are read — and here, one is able to feel the meaning, even if it is lacking throughout the rest of the film.
At one point, Peter is reprimanded for making Eichmann’s capture all about his own losses. Every member of the team has somebody they mourn, yet, for Peter, the emotions come out of his own family’s tragedies.
Yet thematically, Operation Finale continues to base its pathos upon Peter and his losses, making Eichmann’s story all about the former’s catharsis. Moments from the trial play out as background noise, while Peter tries to feel better about the person he lost. The testimony of survivors is washed away — ignored — as Peter busies himself with his own sorrow.
This comes along with an uninteresting subplot of Nazi sympathizers in Argentina trying to find and save Eichmann from his captors. They chase, they menace and they generally act like Nazis or their ilk would be expected to in film. But there’s no sense that they're people, other than Klaus Eichmann, son of the captured Nazi. Even then, all he has to offer is despair that his father is missing. Operation Finale is full to the brim of characters who aren’t written with enough depth to give viewers a reason to care.
Written by Matthew Orton, a first-time screenwriter, Operation Finale is chock-full of potential that never goes anywhere. A climactic sequence of wondering whether or not the plane carrying Eichmann will be able to take off recalls a similar one from Argo; there is no doubt that the hostage will make it out of the country, but the film fails to give a compelling reason to care, even as a horde of enemies approaches.
The most incredible thing Operation Finale is able to do is to take a story about a high-ranking Nazi official and resurgent anti-Semitism, released at a time when neo-Nazis march and flash swastikas, and somehow give no reason for viewers to care.