“The trouble with Eichmann,” wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The trial of Adolf Eichmann was the basis for a shift in a post-war understanding of obedience and authority and guided Arendt toward her famed “banality of evil” theory. Yet Operation Finale, a dramatization of the exiled Nazi war criminal’s capture, lets regrettably little of her insight seep into its DNA, as the film is interested only in presenting Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) as a boogeyman drawn from our collective movie memories.
While Operation Finale provides the type of entertainment expected from a handsomely mounted historical caper, it strains to rise to the level of importance its subject necessitates. The film resembles Ben Affleck’s Argo more than it does Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Steven Spielberg’s Munich. It’s neither a cathartic indulging of righteous vengeance nor a pensive interrogation about the merits of retributive violence. Rather, Matthew Orton’s screenplay sets up a drama about extraction and extradition, treating the mission to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina like a heist film.
Director Chris Weitz is an uncommonly genre-fluid craftsman, and he steers Operation Finale capably. If the filmmakers never get bogged down in the minutiae of the scheme concocted by the Mossad and Shin Bet agents on Eichmann’s trail, it’s because they’re doggedly focused, and captivatingly so, on the result rather than the process. But the excitement trails off and ushers in a dulled dramatic punch when the mission led by secret agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) runs into an extralegal hiccup: getting Eichmann to acknowledge his role in the Holocaust and agree to stand trial for his actions.
This trouble in executing the gear shift stems primarily from the film’s clichéd depiction of the Shoah. Mentions of the Holocaust sporadically occur to establish stakes. For example, the team responsible for Eichmann’s extraction shares stories of their losses during the Holocaust with a kind of masochistic pride, almost boasting about how many family members they lost or how close they were to the dead. Malkin has flashes of guilt, but they’re suppressed beneath his caustic persona. Worse, Operation Finale never makes a convincing case that the tragedy affects any portion of his life, such as his romance with the group’s doctor, Hanna (Mélanie Laurent).
Kingsley disquietingly conveys “banality” in moments of understated calmness. But the film never manages to reconcile the enormity of the Holocaust with how ordinary a bureaucrat Eichmann was. After the man’s capture, most of Operation Finale’s back half hinges on the tension between Malkin and Eichmann as the former gently goads the latter into providing consent for his own trial in Israel. Eichmann and Malkin’s conversations are gripping, and the greatest testament to the former’s pernicious evil lies in his ability to gradually ensnare Malkin into a cat-and-mouse game and get the agent to argue on the Nazi’s playing field of extreme moral relativism.
These conversations, however, ultimately prove hollow, as the film doesn’t try to sell the audience on the fact Eichmann and Malkin are also symbols of their respective identities. The film doesn’t care to convey that their arguments serve as referendums on the value of six million lives lost—or even just the one closest to home for Malkin. Operation Finale fashions its antagonist akin to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, promising to reveal the unfathomable by hyping the appeal of the unknowable. And this promise, which the film fails to deliver upon, sends a far more potent chill than an earlier image of a crowd of former Nazis breaking out into a Sieg Heil.