Despite strong performances from Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac, this fact-based story about notorious SS officer Adolf Eichmann lacks nuance
Whats to be done with a defenseless Nazi? With fascism making a comeback in the United States, thats been the question on many pundits minds, a decisive point where the rubber of ethics meets the road of politics. Its also the central query of Operation Finale, a dramatization of the 1960 mission to retrieve Hitlers henchman Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and bring him to stand trial in Israel. Extradition laws prohibited the Mossad agents tasked with apprehending the notorious SS officer from simply tossing him on a plane and calling it a day, so they had to first get his signature on an official document and then smuggle him out of the country incognito. The latter task wraps the film up with a risky extraction clipped out of a cut-rate Argo, but the former proves even more complicated.
With one of the worlds most evil men tied to a chair, it would have been easy enough for his captors to beat a John Hancock out of him and proceed onward. They instead decided to do things the hard way, endeavoring to convince Eichmann that if he truly believed he was only following orders, as the common defense went, then he shouldnt have any trepidation about proving it to a jury of his peers. So begins a rather sedate battle of wills between a mannered, urbane Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and his strapping interrogator Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) in which neither party has a clear upper hand. After all, as the Mossad team states, this is a man who convinced millions to board trains leading them to their deaths. He knows how to work people.
Kingsleys done this all before: in 1994, he played a war criminal hiding out in South America whos taken prisoner by a vengeful Sigourney Weaver and ultimately spared in an act of soul-cleansing mercy. That film, Roman Polanskis adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden, mounted the same argument in favor of civility that Operation Finale sands to a soft nub. To lay hands on Eichmann, as one of Peters colleagues comes dangerously close to doing in a scene that all but instructs the audience to cry No!, would be to sink to his level. When they go genocidal, we go high.
Aside from the occasionally turbulent tonal modulations between cracking espionage thriller and Silence of the Lambs-style two-hander, that moral reductionism is the blemish marring an otherwise well-acted thespians showcase. Chris Weitzs direction and the dialogue in Matthew Ortons script first paint Eichmann in a discomfortingly sympathetic light, daring the audience to buy his spiel about being a good German and doing right by his family. (Heres the Hannibal Lecter bit; Peters haunted by the memory of his dead sister, and makes the fatal error of letting Eichmann know this.) Accordingly, this leaves Isaac to play Peter as a gritty Captain Israel, an overly familiar mold with which he nevertheless does the best he can.
Its not especially convincing portraiture, not only because the average viewer knows what they know of Eichmann, but because he speaks like every other icy-veined manipulator to have come before him, including himself. He methodically works through the classic sociopaths bait-and-switch, empathizing with Peter by exchanging names, then conversation, then gestures of mutual humanity. When he has the eventual outburst and the composed facade falls away, just as it did in Death and the Maiden, it affirms what the audience already knows but still might like hearing. Deep down, bad people are always villainous the precise opposite of Hannah Arendts immortal wisdom about the banality of evil that Eichmann inspired.
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