It’s notoriously difficult to make a film about the holocaust. The real life horrors are so monumentally huge, so shocking, so ungraspable, that any attempt to package them up into two-hour drama often seems trite for trying. Films about the Nazi war crimes need to be made, but few directors manage to shoulder the responsibility without buckling under the facts.
Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) looks for a way in via an extraordinary post-war story about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, but he ends up making an oddly disjointed thriller that doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be. Luckily, two great performances from Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley go a long way towards making up for it.
Adolf Eichmann was the SS “Obersturmbannführer” who helped to mastermind the holocaust, murdering 6 million Jews to become one of history’s greatest monsters.
Adolph Hitler killed himself in the last days of the war, but Eichmann somehow managed to escape to Argentina, living out his days in Buenos Aires with his wife and son. In 1960, the Israeli intelligence service found out where he was hiding and sent a crack team of Mossad agents to secretly capture him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial.
The Eichmann story has been the subject of a few films already (2007’s Eichmann, 2015’s BBC film The Eichmann Show, and Robert Duvall’s 1996 TV film, The Man Who Captured Eichmann), but the story of how Mossad smuggled him out of Argentina hasn’t really been told that well before – partly because it sounds like something out of an old Mission: Impossible episode.
First off, there’s Peter Malkin (Isaac), the hotshot Mossad field agent who doesn’t respect his elders. Then there’s Dr Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), the anaesthetic expert who has a rocky past with Peter. Then there’s the driver, the heavy, the interrogator and the forger – all assembling to track Eichmann’s movements, drug him, make him wear a fake nose and squirrel him back to Israel via a commercial flight. Throw in a few Indiana Jones-style moving maps (it does) and the film sounds like a load of good old-fashioned fun.
The only problem is, between all the A-Team antics in Buenos Aires, Weitz cuts in several harrowing flashbacks to show what Eichmann (Kingsley) did in Europe – with the tone shifting violently enough to make you feel sort of bad for enjoying it. Isaac does a great job playing the cocky spy (basically just doing Poe Dameron in a suit), but his quips all sounds a bit out of place when they come after a haunting memory of his dead family hanging from a tree.
Odder still, the film takes a completely different direction in the second act – with Mossad’s plans backfiring to see them quietly babysitting Eichmann in a safe-house for ten days, gently trying to coerce a signature out of him. It’s a bit of a jarring scene-shift, but it’s here where Kingsley gets his best scenes.
Playing the exact opposite of his award-winning Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List in almost every way, Kingsley gets a great chance to showcase his range as Eichmann – deceptively charming, at times pitiably weak, but still frighteningly manipulative – even stealing the scenes when he’s sitting on the toilet.
You simply can’t make a bad film about such an amazing story with this kind of cast, but Weitz struggles to make everything add up – missing beats, throwing off the pace and filing off the emotional edges. Throw in some seriously dodgy accents from the supporting cast, some dingy cinematography, and a distractingly jaunty score from Alexandre Desplat and you’re left with a bit of a mixed bag.
Sitting somewhere between Argo and Munich, but not being as good as either, it’s hard not to think that Operation Finale isn’t the best version the Eichmann story that could have been made. But it’s also impossible not to sort of enjoy watching it anyway.
Operation Finale is streaming now on Netflix.