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The 1960 capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann by Israeli spies who tracked him to Argentina is hardly an obscure piece of history. Multiple movies have dramatized it, and the trial that resulted is an important part of Holocaust history. Justifying his interest in expanding the familiar account, screenwriter Matthew Orton beefs up the psychological and moral overtones of what might be a simple procedural adventure in Operation Finale, directed by Chris Weitz and arriving, as will be widely noted, at a moment when dealing with Nazis is hardly a bygone concern. Though not likely to enter the pantheon as either a true-life caper (Argo‘s people-smuggling was more exciting; Munich‘s tale of vengeance more affecting) or as a showcase for face-the-past mind games, the drama benefits from a strong cast and can easily replace 1996’s The Man Who Captured Eichmann as the go-to dramatization of this episode.
That eponymous man is Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), who, though not actually the leader of this team, was the one responsible for physically grabbing Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) off the road near his house in the Buenos Aires suburbs. The German was living there under the name Ricardo Klement, working at an auto factory and enjoying the esteem of others in the area (both Argentines and escaped Germans) who felt this nation could also do with some ethnic cleansing. Israeli intelligence officials knew Nazis were hiding in Argentina, and in this case they got a lead when the daughter of a half-Jewish German (Haley Lu Richardson’s Sylvia) began dating a young man named Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) who bragged that his father was a big deal in the war.
The film suggests that some in power thought it was a waste of time to divert intelligence resources from present-tense dangers to settling old scores. But Mossad operative Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll, effective in a very rare step away from comic roles) argued persuasively that bringing Eichmann to trial in Israel would be a major coup. He was put in charge of the team that would knowingly violate Argentina’s sovereignty in order to secure a criminal they doubted the nation would extradite willingly.
Assembling the team and planning the operation here satisfies some of our heist-movie cravings, with the size and makeup of the team seemingly tweaked a bit for the sake of story. (Much is made, for instance, of the romantic history Malkin has with Melanie Laurent’s Hanna Elian, a physician brought along to sedate the prisoner.) But the event itself is a little flatter than similar sequences in the best military mission films, perhaps because that’s not where the pic’s heart really lies.
Once Eichmann is blindfolded and bound on the top floor of the group’s safe house, the movie becomes explicitly about how one is to deal with those suspected of inhuman crimes. Not just regarding questions of torture or execution without due process, but even harder questions about whether we acknowledge that those who do horrific things remain identifiable human beings, and whether interacting with them on a human level endangers us or saves us from our own worst instincts.
In the film’s account, dealing with Eichmann is necessary because El Al, the airline that would be flying the disguised team back to Israel, decided it wouldn’t cooperate unless he signed a document saying he was willingly going to Israel to stand trial. The question of forgery is hardly broached by the team, now stuck in a house with the man they hate: Can they beat a signature out of him? Stonewall him through deprivation and old-fashioned interrogation? Or might he simply be convinced?
Malkin becomes the crucial actor here as the days pass. Team members take turns guarding Eichmann in between interrogation sessions, and are supposed to say nothing to him. But, seeing that other tactics aren’t working, Malkin takes off the blindfold, gives him a cigarette and shaves him. Though he has spent years obsessed over the loss of his beloved sister to Nazi forces, he convinces himself to swallow his disgust at least long enough to make Eichmann feel he is being heard by his captors.
Kingsley has been in a similar situation before: In the film adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, he was kidnapped by Sigourney Weaver, accused of rape and torture and subjected to a twisted kind of trial. Operation Finale never reaches that film’s emotional intensity. One might expect a bit of scenery-chewing in this role, but Kingsley offers restraint instead, projecting at most an intellectualized indignation when Eichmann argues that he should not be judged by people whose minds are made up in advance. (Reportedly, the actual agents were surprised to find Eichmann wasn’t larger-than-life, and cooperated with them once he was captured.)
Isaac and Kingsley bring quite a bit to Orton’s dialogue, sometimes seeming to mean it at face value and sometimes inviting skepticism. But whether Malkin truly allowed himself to see his prisoner as a person or not, Eichmann wound up signing that paper. After some Hollywood-y close calls, the team got him on a plane and in the air. Closing with the drama of a trial in Israel, Weitz segues from staged scenes to actual news footage, underlining its historic nature while showing documentary evidence of the mass murders that some today like to pretend are a politically motivated fiction.
Production company: Automatik
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Pepe Rapazote, Greta Scacchi
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenwriter: Matthew Orton
Producers: Fred Berger, Oscar Isaac, Jason Spire, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Executive producers: Matt Charman, Ron Schmidt
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: David Brisbin
Costume designer: Connie Balduzzi
Editor: Pamela Martin
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
In English and Spanish
Rated PG-13, 122 minutes