Operation Finale is about the Israeli operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, a man called “the architect of the final solution,” in which agents of Mossad and Shin Bet abducted Eichmann from Argentina to face trial in Israel in 1960. The film explores what evil really looks like, starring kindly old Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar playing Gandhi, as Eichmann, a man for whom the phrase “the banality of evil” was originally coined.
Besides the banality of evil, Operation Finale is also about the elusive nature of true justice. Is “justice” restitution for the victims, or is it a tool for social engineering? And what does it cost, really? I heard an interview with one of the last surviving prosecutors at Nuremberg recently, a gregarious 99-year-old lawyer who turned somber when recounting a story about liberating a concentration camp. He described how some of the prisoners had captured an SS guard and forced him into an oven alive, cooking him slowly until he died. Hearing anecdotes like those, you wonder if payback is closure, or if it becomes just another trauma for an already traumatized victim to have to try to live with.
Operation Finale is not unique in the Nazi-retribution genre (see also Munich, Defiance, The Debt, etc.) but it is a unique movie in that it explores not just the crowd-pleasing drive for revenge, but also the more slippery questions about what that justice should look like, and how it can be co-opted. In one of its first scenes, Mossad agent Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac, realizes he’s kidnapped the wrong guy, but not before his team has already killed the guy. In another, Malkin hears of the Nazi collaborationist elements of the Argentine government falsely passing off a government critic as Josef Mengele.
All of which is to say that Chris Weitz (and his screenwriter, Matthew Orton) have made a film that eschews the simple take. In Weitz’ case, there may be personal reasons for that, having grown up with a father who had been born in Germany to a prominent Jewish family, left in the 30s, and came back during the war as a double agent for the OSS, infiltrating Nazi cells, and being present at the liberation of Dachau. Weitz says his father bore some of the psychological scars from the experience, and it seems plausible that seeing that first hand may have influenced Weitz’s more nuanced approach to the material.
Not that Operation Finale is all somberness and reflection. After all, this is still the same guy who directed About A Boy, and whose “haunted” ex-spy father famously loved Chris’ brother Paul’s debut film, American Pie. When I asked Weitz, who I spoke to by phone last week, why his star, Oscar Isaac, who played an Armenian during the genocide in The Promise last year, was so good at playing genocide victims, Weitz responded, without skipping a beat, “Well, you’re forgetting also about the destruction of the Rebel fleet.”
Anyway, it was an interesting chat.