In 1960, a team of agents took on a mission to retrieve notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann. This team covertly infiltrated Argentina and pulled off an extraction that brought the man known as one of the ‘architects of the Holocaust’ to Israel to stand trial.
Operation Finale, directed by Chris Weitz, is the fictionalized re-telling of this mission through the eyes and perspective of Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Issac) as his and a team dealt with their own personal trauma arising from the war as their mission goes awry.
But, this team came together to pull off a harrowing and even more dangerous (due to a plan with more holes than swiss-cheese, betrayal, and a need to avoid an international incident) than anticipated plan.
This movie focuses on the smaller moments in between the big headline of “war criminal captured” and is an object lesson in empathy, discomfort, and self-sacrifice.
Adolf Eichmann is credited with designing and carrying out all the logistics (think: trains, trucks, and deep trenches) that facilitated the massacre of millions upon millions of Jews (and others declared enemies of the Third Reich) in concentration camps across Europe.
He disappeared into the ether after the Reich fell but featured heavily in the testimony given by survivors during the Nuremberg Trials and instigated a 60-year hunt for the missing SS Officer.
Kingsley’s Eichmann is startlingly ordinary. He looks like any other aging man; just one face in a sea of many. He speaks precisely, is obviously intelligent, slightly socially awkward-looking, extremely articulate and insightful.
His portrayal will be off-putting all the more because he won’t fit people’s mental image of a Nazi. Kingsley is a past-master at bringing depth to characters with the nuanced facial expressions, body-movements that speak volumes, and an unparalleled facility of language. He is quite frankly a badass and has made me scared of more unassuming look me on film than I can count.
Starting the story before the capture with Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) meeting Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) and the cascade of events that followed, allows Finale to highlight a decision many Jews made to keep their families safe and the unintended consequences brought to bear on their children.
It sets up a narrative thread that folds in the broader aspects of life in Argentina and its relationship to the Nazi movement. This decision adds an element of tangible discomfort to several scenes and unsettlingly realistic aspects of how the Nazi movement continued to impact post-war life.
Finale isn’t just about how the capture of a war criminal came about. It showcases the pervasiveness of the mindset that led to the war in the first place, the utter banality of evil that wears a reasonable face and speaks in reasonable tones. This movie is suspenseful, informative, and clearly demonstrates the frustration and pain plaguing the Mossad and Shin Bet agents even sixty-years after the hunt for Adolf Eichmann began.
When bringing true events to life, it’s always a precarious dance of needing to engage and bring an audience into a time period and cultural mindset of a bygone era. Screenwriter, Matthew Orton, seamlessly blended the details of the investigation and extraction with masterful detail and skill.
By the time the story turns fully to the extraction, events unfold with a subtle thread of tension that winds ever-tighter while leaving plenty of room for character development, gritty drama, and absolutely spell-binding by-play between Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann and Issacs’s Malkin.
Finale a timely reminder that ugliness comes in many shapes and can seep into a society under the guise of nationalism. Hate isn’t merely an adjective; it’s in the actions of those who always wear the face of someone’s friend or neighbor. Deeds taken in furtherance of protectionism or preservation can (and often do) result in unspeakable violence, mayhem, and far too often even genocide.
This movie puts the struggle to survive in the aftermath of World War II into a perspective even the most removed from events can process.
The Nazis weren’t some fashion accessory or just philosophical ideal to rally around wearing khakis and carrying tiki torches. They were a group of men gathered around a leader intent on dominating the world, bending his kingdom to his will, and reshaping it all to match his ideal.
They were driven by a desire to wipe out not only their enemies but those they considered their genetic inferiors and therefore obstacles to racial purity and reigning supreme unchallenged. These were men and women who firmly believed in the cause and were willing do the needful to see their side win.
If a look back a historical figure like Eichmann reminds people that zealous adherence to nationalist rhetoric can look and sound completely ordinary even as it destroys (and takes) lives, great.
Operation Finale is a skillfully crafted film it’s far from perfect but does one heck of a good job dealing with what could be seriously dry subject matter. It’s informative without being overly burdensome, suspenseful while leaving room for emotional connection and it’s all due to the phenomenal cast that pulled together a story built around the part of war-in-the-aftermath that isn’t often the central focus of a feature-length film.
I was moved, amused, uncomfortable and reminded that the face of an enemy is most likely to look just like that of a friend. Catching the bad guy is always an adventure, this is one that really mattered.