The title of Operation Finale denotes the Mossad’s celebrated mission of 1960, when a team of Israeli agents slipped into Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann, the so-called architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” The hard part wasn’t kidnapping him (a good German, he was described as “metronomical” in his habits) but smuggling him out of the country before Fascist-leaning Argentineans and/or Eichmann’s Nazi compadres could stop them. And Eichmann was a slippery fellow. Although Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe this nondescript man who claimed only to be “following orders,” Eichmann was an extraordinary psychopath. After making it logistically possible to poison and/or incinerate millions of “enemies of the Reich,” he used his wiles to wriggle out of the Allies’ grasp and start a family in South America. He was as un-banal as they come.
His discovery and kidnapping is a great story, and you can read all about it in Neal Bascomb’s gripping Hunting Eichmann (long subtitle: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi). Read it in lieu of seeing the sluggish, un-gripping Operation Finale. It opens with the German-born Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, who co-produced) gumming up a 1954 attempt to capture Eichmann, after which he becomes God’s Loneliest Man, haunted by a woman we learn is his sister. She was either hung or machine-gunned, depending on whose memory we’re watching. Let me backtrack.
Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) also has visions, and it’s unclear how the woman in his fantasy connects with Malkin’s sister, if at all. There’s a problem when you can’t keep ghosts of Holocaust victims straight.
The pacing is off from the first scenes, thick with exposition but skimpy on clarity. An Argentine girl, Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), who is either part or all Jewish but keeps that under wraps catches the eye of a blond Aryan (Joe Alwyn), who turns out to be Eichmann’s son, Klaus. On their first date, he meets her father (Peter Strauss, of network mini-series fame), who, though blind, susses out that Adolf Eichmann is in the hood. Perhaps it’s Klaus’s name that clues him in, or the part where Klaus says his “uncle” thinks Jews pop up like mushrooms. On their second date, Klaus brings Sylvia to a Nazi rally, from which she runs weeping. Klaus wonders, “Could she be Jewish?” Sylvia confirms the man with whom Klaus lives is not his uncle when Klaus says “father.” The master race, ladies and gentlemen.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Malkin attempts to enlist the help of his ex-girlfriend, Hanna (Melanie Laurent), a doctor who lost a patient on the last Mossad mission to kidnap an ex-Nazi. I took a Hippocratic oath, she tells him. This is Eichmann, he responds. A fellow agent warns Hanna that Malkin will let her down: “You know he lets everyone down.” But Hanna does come along, if only to keep Malkin in her sights. Simon Russell Beale toddles in as David Ben-Gurion to remind the team of the momentousness of their task. They fly to Argentina via different airports, shown in a graphic I couldn’t begin to follow — and who cares? The Israelis have a training montage. Malkin sits with Hanna, gazing into the Argentine night. “I saw [Eichmann] with his son,” he says. “Beautiful little boy. Watching the trains go by.” Hanna says, “We’re going to get him,” an oddly inapt response. She plainly needs to retake the Hippocratic Oath.
The director of Operation Finale is Chris Weitz, who did beautifully with the comedy About a Boy (which was also deftly narrated) and then inexplicably moved on to movies like The Golden Compass (a nonstarter) and the second Twilight dirge. Here, working with Matthew Orton’s muddy script, he never finds a pulse — amazing given this particular story as well as Alexandre Desplat’s score, which is thunderous with the odd plink for texture. Orton likely cribbed the idea from Argo of adding a chase to the runway and last-second takeoff, but there’s no snap to it. Weitz doesn’t have Ben Affleck’s shamelessness — or his talent for ratcheting up the stakes.
The fleeting good moments in Operation Finale come from a few of the actors. Greg Hill has a seething presence as the agent who’d like to finish off Eichmann on the spot. Nick Kroll is very entertaining as the Mossad coordinator on the ground, not for anything specific he does but because he comes with his own energy cell. He’s alive onscreen. As for Sir Ben, well, no one would mistake the half-Indian actor for Aryan, but he’s a credibly smug bastard. In his best scene, he accepts bits of food from Isaac’s Malkin while blindfolded, opening his mouth like a bird and chewing exaggeratedly, as if mocking his captor. And his eyes flash with pleasure when he stops pretending he was “a cog in the machine” and lets his pride in killing his country’s enemies shine through. But most of the time you can’t tell if you’re seeing Eichmann’s eccentricities or Kingsley doing a sort of Nazi Hannibal Lecter — the banality of ham.