Operation Finale

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday August 28, 2018

'Operation Finale'
'Operation Finale'  

Director Chriz Weitz and writer Matthew Orton bring subtle contemporary resonance to their historical drama "Operation Finale," which tells the true story of how Mossad agents, acting on a tip, tracked arch-Nazi Adolph Eichmann to Argentina, captured him, and then managed to spirit him out of the country despite sympathizers in that nation's government and police force.

If Eichmann was the personification of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil," his downfall, as recounted here, is rooted in just such banality. When we meet Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), he's entertaining a group of admirers with his version of how things went down during the Third Reich's insane campaign of mass murder. His son Klaus (Joe Alwyn) - a chip right off the old swastika-shaped block - is an ardent supporter of Argentina's anti-Semitic movement; when he meets an attractive young woman named Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), he takes her to a hate-filled meeting from which she flees in horror. Who can blame her? It's the sort of get together that features Catholic priests joining in with everyone else as they scream chants about turning Jews into soap.

That's bad enough, but Sylvia, as it turns out, is ethnically Jewish. Still, there's a silver lining: Her father, Lothar (Peter Strauss), alerts people he knows to the possible identity of Adolph Eichmann, who has been living under an assumed name for years. Eventually, the Mossad agents arrive, establish a safe house, and begin to draw their plans.

That's where the drama of this cat-and-mouse thriller begins. Eichmann has a sixth sense for danger; spotting a Mossad guy taking photos of his house, Eichmann dashes off a quick sketch of the man, a likeness that will come to play a role in subsequent events. The Mossad crew succeed in kidnapping Eichmann, but the local Nazi sympathizers quickly mount a manhunt, with young Klaus leading the pack.

As the Mossad people await their escape out of the country, they begin to experience internal tensions - a natural enough result, considering that all of them have lost some, if not all, of their family members to the Nazi killing machine. When strapping hothead Moshe (Greg Hill) finds himself getting hot enough under the collar that he might just kill Eichmann - who sits regally upstairs in pajamas and blindfold, his cool effect of superiority even more infuriating than his long evasion of justice - Peter (Oscar Isaac) volunteers to take his shift. Peter has lost family to the Nazis, too, but he also knows how to use a softer touch - not unlike Eichmann himself, who loses no time in establishing himself as a skilled manipulator.

It's in the upstairs bedroom, during Peter and Eichmann's quiet conversations, that the movie burns with tension, and with outrage. It's also here that we hear comments and phrases that resound anew in the airwaves of 2018: Vitriol about the "lying press," for example, or rages about the way truth isn't really the truth.

The film flashes back frequent to Eichmann in uniform, rubbing at ink stains on his white shirt sleeve and strolling through a forest, flanked by Nazi goons, to a mass grave where still-living Jews standing by the hundreds, waiting for a fatal fusillade. Strip away that uniform, however, and set aside the monstrous specifics of Eichmann's crimes, and this becomes a film about two men. One is trying to justify his actions with arguments to the effect that human beings are animals, noting that, in the animal kingdom, victory belongs to the vicious. The other is fighting a very different war, however: A war against his impulses to seek violent revenge in the name of upholding justice and gleaning some sort of useful understanding from the monster in his keeping.

The film offers all the other standard ingredients - there's a love story between Peter and a physician named Hanna (Mťlanie Laurent); Peter himself is seeking redemption for a Nazi hunting mission gone wrong sometime earlier; there's even a fair amount of humor, much of it from Peter, with some zingers thrown in from the team's quick-witted leader, a fellow named Rafi (Nick Kroll) - but the essential tension comes from this rivalry between conflicting impulses. Burn everything down, or continue a patchwork progress? Kill a butcher for his crimes, or offer him the dignity of a trial? Build a wall against the past or a bridge to the future? These are the questions the film poses, and they're worth the asking.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.