Greg, hand me the scalpel. It’s time to operate.
It’s the finale to the Final Solution. Let’s recap this depiction of a true-life story.
We meet Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a member of the Israeli Mossad dedicated toward finding Nazis who fled Germany after World War II. We also meet Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), one of the architects of the Holocaust who is now living under a secret identity in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Malkin and his team hatch a plan to abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial.
After some mishaps, the team capture Eichmann and take him to a safe house. But things go awry when their planned flight is delayed 10 days. Then, El Al airlines decides that they require a signed letter from Eichmann indicating his willingness to be taken to Israel to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. Now, it’s a race against time for Malkin to gain Eichmann’s trust and get him to sign the letter before the plane takes off and evade discovery by the Argentinian Nazi organization intent on finding Eichmann.
Greg, Operation Finale tells one of the success stories of Israel’s attempt to hunt down those individuals who engineered one of the worst genocides in human history. It’s a story that needs to be told, yet it’s a story that could have been told better. Despite focusing on the Holocaust and its aftermath, this film strangely lacks dramatic punch. Perhaps the ennui stems from the fact that we know the outcome – Eichmann certainly has to be captured and justice (of sorts) is served.
Just as problematic is the fact that there isn’t much going on in this film that grabs our attention or surprises us. Yes, Eichmann is portrayed by Ben Kingsley as a complex, evil man who is capable of playing mind games with his captors. But I didn’t find many of the scenes between Eichmann and Malkin to be particularly compelling.
There are elements of the story that are reminiscent of older stories. A much older story, for example, is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Lady Macbeth’s guilt and torment about having murdered someone prompts her to fixate on the bloody spots on her hands (“Out, damn spot!”). Similarly in Operation Finale, Eichmann is shown many times to be preoccupied with spots of blood on his shirt. More recently, Ben Affleck’s film Argo depicts a similar ending at the airport, with the good guys trying to take off in their escape plane while the bad guys are arriving just a bit too late to stop them. As in Argo, I suspect some liberties with the truth were taken to add some drama to the getaway scene.
I had a different feeling about this film. Last year we reviewed another Oscar Isaac film The Promise depicting the Armenian genocide of the second world war. That film was a true stinker that did not pull us in.
However, Operation: Finale did a much better job of seating us into the world of Peter Malkin and his one-on-one psychological battle with a true master of manipulation. And Malkin nearly loses. Ben Kingsley is amazing in this role – alternately making us feel sympathy for Eichmann and loathing him. Malkin at one point invokes his dead sister to convince Eichmann to sign the paper. But in revealing his pain of losing his sister to the Nazi genocide, he also exposes his weakness to Eichman. This gives Eichman the leverage he needs to strike at Malkin where he is most vulnerable. It’s a dramatically tense moment that raises Operation: Finale high above above lesser films (like The Promise and especially 2010’s The Debt which has a similar plot).
Operation Finale is well worth seeing, if only to remind us of the horrors of genocide and to educate us about Israel’s noteworthy commitment to bringing evil war criminals to justice. This film seemed to do a somewhat anemic job of portraying some pretty powerful situations involving Eichmann’s past, his abduction, and his transport to Israel. It all seemed a little too much by-the-numbers. As much as I admire Ben Kingsley, I’m not as convinced as you are, Greg, that he was well-cast as Eichmann. Overall, the best I can do is give this film a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.
Peter Malkin and the other Mossad agents are certainly a worthy ensemble of heroes. They are challenged by the physical task of removing Eichmann from Argentina and must do a lot of problem-solving on the fly as circumstances change around them. These heroes aren’t transformed by their experience very much, but they do send a message to the world about the lengths they’re willing to go to deliver justice. Perhaps in this sense they are change-agents. I give these heroes 3 hero points out of 5.
With regard to archetypes, there are the archetypes of evil government, the evil mastermind, racist groups, and the institution of racism. These archetypes also deserve a rating of 3 Arcs out of 5.
I thought Operation: Finale was exceptional in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust while still presenting a thrilling drama. Despite the fact that I knew the outcome, getting there was a hair-raiser. I enjoyed this film, especially compared to its antecedents. I give Operation: Finale 4 out of 5 Reels.
Malkin is a flawed hero pitted against a formidable villain. This is exactly what you need for a compelling hero’s journey. While Malkin is competent and moral, we also see that he can be pushed to the brink of murder and vengeance. In bringing Eichmann to justice, Malkin heals himself and his country, perhaps even the world. As such he is both transformed himself, and a catalyst for transformation in others. I give him 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Archetypes abound including EVIL NAZIS, NEGOTIATOR, and LOVE INTEREST. But there are no strong archetypal characters worthy of note. I give them just 3 Arcs.