Certain subgenres of movies carry incredible weight to them. Sitting down to take in a film like OPERATION FINALE. can feel intimidating. It is as though I am about to take on a solemn duty. Sure, there is entertainment here, but it is not the first priority. Certain subgenres demand attention, and, more precisely, respect.

Films that wrestle with the Holocaust and its legacy have become, perhaps, the most undeniable of these subgenres. However, even a subgenre of this gravity can offer middlebrow fare. I regretfully report OPERATION FINALE is such a feature.

OPERATION FINALE: The Team
Mélanie Laurent (first facing camera), Oscar Isaac, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov, and Greg Hill plan for justice, not vengeance in a scene from OPERATION FINALE. (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Idea Behind OPERATION FINALE

Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) — largely considered the architect of Nazism’s “Final Solution” — escaped Germany somewhere near the end of World War II for parts unknown. However, through an unlikely, but true, series of events, Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) encounters Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) at a movie theatre in Argentina in 1960. Both German teens in exile in South America, they bond quickly and start a romance.

Anxious to show off her new boyfriend to her father Lothar (Peter Strauss), Sylvia brings by Klaus by the house. Assuming the Hermanns are former Nazis or Nazi sympathizers too, Klaus reveals his father is Adolph. Lothar, actually a Jewish man who escaped the Holocaust, recognizes the name straight away. Despite living undercover as a Catholic, Lothar knows what he must do. Bringing Eichmann to justice is simply too important to the Jewish people not to alert the Israeli government.

After some brief arm-twisting, the government dispatches a team including Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov), Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent), Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), and Moshe Tabor (Greg Hill). A surprising number of displaced and wannabe Nazis populate Argentina making it far more dangerous ground than one might expect. Add in internal clashing personalities and the group finds itself in a threatening quagmire. As the clock ticks, they do their best to evade the local police. Meanwhile, they must convince Eichmann to give consent to be brought back to Israel to stand trial lest the retrieval leads to an international incident.

OPERATION FINALE: Probably Won't Use
Nick Kroll ponders a serious turn in a scene from OPERATION FINALE. (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Writing OPERATION FINALE

What would be the center of most thrillers — tension and danger — is the weakest part of Matthew Orton’s screenplay. Where he excels is the interpersonal dynamics, especially between Malkin and Eichmann. The power dynamics shift constantly, leaving the viewer unsure of who has the advantage. Frequently, a character appears to gain the upper hand only to play into the other’s trap a moment later.

The dynamics amongst the team are typically strong as well. What undercuts them somewhat is the seeming outcast nature of Malkin who, evidently, is supposed to be some kind of vengeance obsessed hot head. Yet at least one member of the team is raging throughout the film, actively calling of Eichmann’s head, in a way Malkin never does. Additionally, the sort of “original sin” of Malkin involves an incident that seems to have more to do with bad intel than anything he did wrong.

Moreover, when they mistake actually occurs, Malkin happens to be yards away running to stop it. Considering how much time is dedicated to implying Malkin is the wild card, the on-screen reality is puzzling. As noted above, the film has its slackest moments when it tries to be it’s most tense. A scene on an airstrip that is a ticking clock situation and leaves a member of the team stranded never actually feels dire. The one left behind, in fact, seemingly makes it back to Israel with nary a scary moment. So much of the writing is good this inability to make the heart race is a true disappointment.

OPERATION FINALE: Malkin is ready
Oscar Isaac centers himself for another round in OPERATION FINALE. (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Casting The Leads of OPERATION FINALE

As implied above, this movie sails or crashes based on Isaac’s and Kingsley’s abilities to make the script sing. They both prove equal to the task. We never forget who they are or what they represent but both find ways to slip humanity into their performances. There is an almost meta quality to their verbal gymnastics. Yes, they are finding the humanity in their performances to draw viewers in closer, to make the conflict more muddy than good vs. evil.

However, in the context of the movie, Making and Eichmann are also trying to reveal humanity to one another so as to manipulate each other. We are, in essence, watching a double performance. Kingsley and Isaac are playing Eichmann and Malkin. Meanwhile, Eichmann and Malkin are trying to play the most pleasing seductive versions of themselves.

Casting The Rest of the OPERATION FINALE Call Sheet

With so much focus on Isaac and Kingsley, there is little time or space for other characters to develop. The most notable exception to me is Mélanie Laurent’s Hanna. While she does succumb to the script’s weird insistence that Malkin ruins everything he touches, her want to help Israel while refusing to be an executioner is compelling. The quiet subtlety of her heartbreak at her one mistake and her failed relationship with Malkin threads a compelling ambivalence throughout her arc.

I also want to shout out Nick Kroll as he is likely the one most people recognize. His performance as an attorney in LOVING showed he might have chops beyond his comedic timing but the role itself seemed undercooked. Here, with an arguably smaller role, he has this great sense of on-screen naturalism. He is not blowing the doors off the thing performance wise but he feels so of the moment. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.

OPERATION FINALE: Eichmann
Ben Kingsley faces down an Israeli court in a scene from OPERATION FINALE (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Filming

Christopher Weitz is an underrated filmmaker. Perhaps best known for AMERICAN PIE, he has turned in good work in movies that he largely was too good for including DOWN TO EARTH and the messy underfunded GOLDEN COMPASS.

However, he has one classic to his name — ABOUT A BOY — and has demonstrated a great eye in every effort. Much like the script, Weitz’s work comes to life in the close quarters of the Eichmann-Malkin interactions. And, much like the screenplay, he stumbles when it comes to the tension of what should be the film’s dramatic climax.

That’s a Wrap!

As I implied above, this is not a great movie. In fact, it is a rather mediocre affair. I would suggest that the talent brought to bear hear should have given us a stronger telling of this naturally compelling piece of history. That said, Isaac and Kingsley put on enough of an acting clinic that I cannot, in good conscience, encourage people to skip it.

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