Who’d have ever thought that one of the co-directors of American Pie, the coming-of-age comedy about a boy having sex with the most wholesome of pastries would go on to have such a colorful career as a filmmaker? From the Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy to the big-budget adventure of The Golden Compass, to even a Twilight entry, Chris Weitz has run the gamut of mainstream tastes with aplomb. Even so, upon seeing that he helmed Operation Finale, a historical drama, I still felt surprised. Typically, when a mainstream filmmaker dips into what would appear to be prestige territory it gives me pause. Can the man who put Jason Biggs’ nether regions into a beloved treat also deliver what is required of a non-fiction drama? As it turns out, yes he can. While certainly not a classic in the realm of historical thrillers, as it stands, Operation Finale is the definitive cinematic telling of its titular mission (the previous being The Man Who Captured Eichmann – 1966).
Set in 1960, Operation Finale follows a mission enacted by Mossad spies to apprehend and put on trial Adolph Eichmann, the mastermind behind the Final Solution, who has been hiding out under an assumed name in the newly sovereign nation of Argentina. The mission must go off flawlessly or the spies risk setting off a chain of geopolitical consequences which would be detrimental to the international reputation of Israel. It’s a tricky play. The team, led by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, who also produced), must positively identify their mark, extricate him from his home undetected, and then get him to agree, while imprisoned in a safe house, to be taken to Israel and tried in front of his victims. Without his consent, the powers that be in Tel Aviv will not be complicit in placing him on an international flight. This sticky situation is compounded by the fact that Malkin has botched a few missions in the past due to a tendency to let the personal stakes of vengeance compromise his ability to operate without error.
This is illustrated in thre film’s opening when Malkin and his team capture and execute a mid-ranking Nazi in hiding only to find out that they grabbed the wrong guy. Ethical mitigation comes in the form of “well, he was still a Nazi.” This expository mistake opens up the thematic concerns of the script. Namely, how complicit is somebody who was just following the orders of their government? At what point can a person be forgiven for going with the flow as an act of self-preservation? An interesting notion to say the least, but it’s one that the film ultimately doesn’t fully explore.
You see, once Eichmann is in captivity, it’s Malkin who attempts to tap into his prisoner’s humanity if only to facilitate compliance. In these moments we see Malkin losing his vengeful edge, but gaining traction with his enemy’s pliability. A lot could be done with this push/pull, but Matthew Orton’s script plays it safe. It’s not easy to effectively humanize a man of indisputable evil such as Eichmann without appearing sympathetic. A more confident film would certainly try. Then again, in a world where basic decency in the face of opposition is so often (and so wrongly) conflated with advocacy of the enemy, who can blame the film for only going halfway with it? A much more interesting film would have let the characterization of Eichmann simmer for the bulk of the runtime, threatening to soften Malkin’s anger to the point where he becomes the advocate we so readily fear. In showing his strained interactions with his team, the film utilizes their fear of too much empathy to a thematic end, but only does so in spurts – it should drive the film entirely.
Even still, this setup allows for some deliciously scripted scenes in with we get to watch Oscar Isaac go toe to toe with the great Sir Ben Kingsley, whose Eichmann was bound to be grand no matter what the script required of him. In addition to these wonderful scenes of crackling dialogue we also get a surprisingly deep performance, laced with humor of course, from Nick Kroll, who is right at home working with heavy hitters like Kingsley, Isaac, and Melanie Laurent whose quiet cool is essential in keeping this ragtag group of spies from giving in to excess.
Stylistically, this is pretty straightforward stuff. There’s not much flair in the way things are shot, so much as there is solid composition throughout. None of the imagery pops, per se, but none of it looks amateurish either. It’s handsome. Where the film excels is in the pacing. For a flick that tosses between espionage thriller, political talkie, character study, and heist movie, it juggles the styles nicely and keeps everything appropriately tense, loosening up only for moments here and there into which a humorous or romantic flourish can be inserted. This is a perfectly competent, steadily entertaining film which will certainly find its home on television, pleasing history buffs while entertaining the rest of us well enough. And really, this story is one worth telling. I, for one, had never been made aware of its details until now (public school – community college). As I said before, this is the definitive take on the tale for now, and a deserving one at that, but I can’t help but to feel that it won’t be the last… or the best.
Operation Finale is open now in Philly theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.