Operation Finale, a film about the 1960 operation to capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, is far from the first movie to depict the hunt for an escaped Nazi leader, but director Chris Weitz might have the most interesting personal connection to the material. His father, John, was a German-born Jew whose family fled Hitler in the 30s and moved to the US, where he was recruited into the OSS (the precursor to the CIA). He later returned to Germany in the waning days of the war, going undercover and infiltrating the last remaining pockets of Hitler loyalists, at one point going so far as to get an SS tattoo and then burning it off, just to properly look the part.
I mention this mostly because it’s an interesting story, but also because Operation Finale is the closest either of Hollywood’s filmmaking Weitz brothers (Chris directed Golden Compass, the second Twilight, and About A Boy; his brother Paul directed American Pie, In Good Company, Admission, and Grandma) have come to putting one of their father’s stories on film. It’d be a bit rich to suggest that Weitz was the person to make this film because of who is father is (John Weitz also died in 2002), but it does seem possible that growing up with a man who seemed to all the world a dashing war hero (John Weitz’s obituary notes that James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli once told Weitz that he was just like Bond, only more handsome) but who still had demons helped him avoid some of the usual pitfalls of feel-good, Nazi retribution stories.
Operation Finale, scripted by Matthew Orton, is a lot more nuanced than “Nazis bad, kill ’em good,” as much as I do enjoy that basic framework. Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann, “the architect of the final solution,” who was smuggled out of Argentina by Mossad agents to stand trial in Israel. Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, part of an extraction team that includes characters played by Melanie Laurent, Nick Kroll, Lior Raz, and Michael Aronov.
Simply put, I’m a sucker for a good Nazi-killin’ movie, the older and more decrepit the Nazis the better (I like my ex-Nazis the way Grover Norquist likes his government, so weak and diminished you can drown them in the bathtub), but it takes Weitz fewer than five minutes to establish that Operation Finale isn’t going to be your typical feel-good Nazi-killin’ romp. The opener finds Malkin (Isaac) on an operation in Austria in 1954, snatching an ex-Nazi during his family dinner. He talks to the man’s wife while his comrades drag the man outside, and it only dawns on Malkin that they’ve got the wrong guy seconds before he hears the gunshots announcing the man’s summary execution. Oops!
The rub is that revenge comes at a cost to the avenger, especially if done recklessly. Yet neither is Operation Finale entirely a dove’s screed. Weitz and Orton’s version of this story recognizes both justice’s shortcomings and its ultimate necessity. What the film lacks in shoot ’em up action and revenge movie catharsis it makes up for in tense exchanges between Kingsley and Isaac, two of our greatest working actors.
Malkin is the “good cop” in the situation, the guy who thinks they can catch more Nazis with honey, defying orders to treat Eichmann with dignity — chatting him up and sharing cigarettes. There’s an indescribable pleasure to watching Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac simply sit and smoke cigarettes together. Their back and forths are interesting, and the film refuses to dehumanize Eichmann even as it castigates. It even allows some of Eichmann’s moral relativism to stand unchallenged. “You treated them like animals,” Malkin accuses.
“We’re all animals,” Eichmann retorts. “Some of us just have sharper teeth.”
“The Nazi makes a fair point,” you occasionally find yourself saying.
Yet neither does it let him off the hook. Just because Eichmann isn’t a fire-breathing murderer doesn’t mean he isn’t still evil. Weitz saves his most evil role for Pêpê Rapazote as Carlos Fuldner, the sieg-heiling leader of a band of Nazi-sympathizing Argentinians allied with the Catholic Church, to whom Eichmann’s own son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn), who hasn’t even bothered to change his last name, has become an adherent. The rub is that poisonous ideology is a higher evil than any one person. And it’s even more insidious when it looks like a kindly old man played by Ben Kingsley.
This is a film about the complicated nature of justice, not revenge as catharsis. Of course, moral complexity can be a bit of a downer, but the beauty of Operation Finale is that it’s as much a heist film as it is a meditation on the elusive nature of true justice. There’s a lot of Argo in its mix of suspenseful safe house scenes culminating in a chase. Finale cheats less than Argo, but also lacks some of its humor.
For the most part, Operation Finale is a good story, well told. Yet something about it isn’t entirely satisfying either. It deftly eschews the most simplistic takes, but what it offers in return — the banality of evil, essentially — isn’t quite groundbreaking either. Still, it’s more than worth it to watch Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac spar for a bit.