Review: ‘Operation Finale’ (terse and tensionless)

Apprehending “the banality of evil” is under-served by the banality of this film.

As a Mossad agent, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) has personal reasons for pursuing Nazi criminals for Israel, but a false identification stains his record. His chance at redemption arrives in 1960 when an unlikely contact provides credible evidence they have located Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the highest ranking officer of the Third Reich still alive. The team must create an opportunity, capture their target unseen, and transport him from Argentina back to Israel to stand trial. The despised mastermind of “The Final Solution,” however, is as emotionally manipulative as he is notorious, and more than one member of the team would be happy to simply put a bullet in Eichmann’s head.

For those unfamiliar with this moment in history, the 8-month internationally televised trial of Adolph Eichmann included crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against the Jewish people — fifteen counts in all. Media coverage increased public awareness of the Holocaust, an event some claim even today never happened: state-sponsored mass extermination of a targeted and vulnerable people. It’s been 25 years since Spielberg’s Schindler’s List served as a reminder; is Operation Finale capable of rekindling that interest?

One could imagine this as an Argo-style drama re-purposed to kidnap a Hannibal Lector-like villain for the trial of the century, yet even that idea fails to measure up to the weight of bringing this real-life war criminal to justice. In spite of the exemplary casting of Kingsley as Eichmann, the end result has all the impact of falling onto a feather bed, and that feels very wrong. What should have been the riveting true story of bringing “the Architect of the Holocaust” to justice falls short with lacking focus and non-committal direction.

As one man’s personal drama intertwined with ensemble-cast heist-like elements, the narrative spends too little time with either to achieve impact. Tension needed to be increased by focusing more on Peter Malkin’s plight rather than limp around with the one-note characters, of which there are far too many. As a side note, this was reportedly already a known issue in bringing the story to the big screen, that more people were involved than actually shown in the film. Because there were already characters combined to condense running time, it could have benefited from a couple more to achieve the focus it lacked.

The second problem is confusion regarding “the girl,” who isn’t so much of a character as a plot point. To say as little as possible, the aforementioned issues are exacerbated here because she’s meant to serve as a representation as well. If this sounds confusing, watching the film isn’t entirely different, lessening the importance of this narrative device intended to bookend the film itself. In contrast, the footage looks great, intentionally mirroring the look and feel of period films as though it could have been made in the 1960s. Is it too much to hope a better edit wound up on the cutting room floor that might one day be restored?

By short-changing this and other elements, Oscar Isaac’s performance as Malkin comes off too much like a moody Poe Dameron ala The Last Jedi, and that can’t be what the director Chris Weitz intended. Hey: did you see where Schindler’s List is coming back to theaters for a limited run?

Operation Finale is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, for some language, and about as much tension as an untied rope.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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