Considering director Chris Weitz got his start in anticipation and release, it’s shocking how little he knows about tension. In his first film, American Pie – co-directed with his brother, Paul – the story is clearly headed in an obvious direction, without much suspense about how it will end up. Chris’ last film, 2011’s A Better Life, which tonally felt completely unexpected from Weitz, still headed towards an inevitable conclusion. Hell, it was even obvious that Bella would end up with Edward at the end of Weitz’s contribution to the Twilight saga, New Moon. Which makes Weitz such a strange choice for Operation Finale, a film which under Weitz and first-time writer Matthew Orton mix Argo with the mind games of The Silence of the Lambs, without the tension of either of those films. Weitz’s inability to build pressure, and Orton’s inexperience both fail an incredible true story with a fantastic cast.
Operation Finale begins 15 years after the conclusion of World War II, with many of Hitler’s top men having already faced trial at Nuremberg. Yet many Nazis escaped without repercussions, hiding around the world under false identities. Such was the case for Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the architect of the Final Solution and Hitler’s top lieutenant who escaped capture, who fled to Buenos Aires with his family after the war.
As a sloppy Mossad agent, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) hunts down escaped Nazis. In the film’s opening scene, Malkin’s team kills the wrong man, yet his anger over losing loved ones in the Holocaust doesn’t leave him all that broken up about killing the wrong Nazi. When Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) – a young woman in Buenos Aires – starts dating Klaus (Joe Alwyn), not only does she discover that her crush is a Nazi, but that his father might be the missing Eichmann. Hermann’s discovery finds its way to Malkin and his team of spies, who make a plan to go to Argentina, kidnap Eichmann, and have him put on trial in Israel for his crimes.
Operation Finale’s most damning flaw is that there’s no true mystery as to how this story plays out. Every moment that is supposed to play as tense feels slightly inconvenient. For example, when Malkin and his team attempt to kidnap Eichmann, their plan is to grab him right when he gets off the bus from work. The main source of conflict in this scene is that Eichmann is on a different bus than the team thought, one which arrives only seconds later. Later, when the Mossad have Eichmann and are trying to get him to admit that he is in fact, Eichmann, it takes them a mere minute for him to go from stonewalling to completely admitting that he was one of Hitler’s main circle. Even the film’s final action sequence centers around delivering a piece of paper, without any real danger, in a segment that feels largely inspired by Argo’s conclusion. Weitz and Orton it seems have their goals and conclusions set, yet it’s getting from one to the other that lacks any excitement or captivating suspense.
Once Operation Finale focuses on the dynamic between Malkin and Eichmann, the performances take the reins and the film is truly at its best. Both Isaac and Kingsley have ulterior motives in their relationship, and the Orton’s screenplay dabbles in how much the audience can trust either of these characters. This is especially true of Kingsley as Eichmann, who can be charming and friendly, before the film snaps back into the reality that he’s responsible for millions lost. In both of their performances, Kingsley and Isaac are begging for sympathy. Malkin wants Eichmann to show the most basic shred of humanity towards his own plight and the murder of millions of Jews, while Eichmann tries to make Malkin and the audience sympathize with his “we were just following orders” mentality.
While it might seem that Orton is leading the audience towards misplaced sympathy for Eichmann, the film’s overall statement towards these monsters is never nebulous. In one of his first scenes, Eichmann’s disagreement with his own son ends with Eichmann holding him by the neck, and throughout the film, there’s no doubt that the Nazis are a serious threat that are simply waiting for their chance to return. Orton makes it so the only way we can truly care for Eichmann is if we buy into the clear lies that he is selling us. It’s a smart choice, as in our society today, there’s no need to be coy about the true nature of Nazism.
It’s a shame that Operation Finale’s phenomenal cast doesn’t get as much to work with as Isaac and Kingsley do. Richardson is used more as a function of the plot than as an actual character. The same is true of Mélanie Laurent as Hanna, Malkin’s on-again-off-again girlfriend who is the Mossad team’s doctor. Her role is essentially to be a way for Malkin to reveal his feelings towards the Eichmann situation, and to play the object of Malkin’s affection. Most of Malkin’s team is just as poorly defined, and even makes Nick Kroll nothing more than monotoned mediocrity.
Considering the importance for many of putting Eichmann on trial, it’s a shame Operation Finale is a bland, uninspired history lesson. Kingsley and Isaac’s scenes almost make up for the complete lack of surprise and mundanity of the story, but it’s hard to ignore how excellent this story would’ve been, had it been told by filmmakers with a stronger grasp of the material.