Back in the late-1970s, post-WWII stories about Nazis still on the loose were becoming popular. Think of “The Boys from Brazil” and “Marathon Man.” The topic is front and center again, this time in a based-on-fact story, set in 1960, of Israeli Mossad agents going to Argentina on a mission to “capture and extract” Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the final solution,” who was hiding out there under an assumed identity.
“Operation Finale” is a piece of history that starts out as a melodrama, then slowly evolves into a thriller. The first 15 or 20 minutes has a lot going on, not all of it sufficiently explained, with the action switching back and forth from Buenos Aires, a city then teeming with German expats, many of them Nazis on the run, to Tel Aviv’s Mossad headquarters, where discussions about clues regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts are taking place. Once most of the major characters have been introduced, the film and its main story sharpen into focus.
Buenos Aires is where 20-something Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), whose not-named father was said to have been killed in the war, lives with his uncle and aunt, whose shared last name is Klement.
Klaus is dating Sylvia Hermann (Hayley Lu Richardson), who has never told Klaus that she’s Jewish. That’s probably a good thing, since mild-mannered Klaus hangs out with people who don’t bother disguising their virulent anti-Semitism. At a meeting of re-settled Germans, attended by both Klaus and Sylvia, chilling communal shouts of sieg heil become so overwhelming, she runs from the room, aghast.
Meanwhile, in Israel, plans are shaping up for that secret mission, once it’s proven that Eichmann is indeed in Buenos Aires. They will enter the country, follow him, grab him, drug him, get him aboard an El AL flight, and whisk him back to Israel. Some Mossad members would rather kill him, but others want to put him on trial, for the world to see what he did.
The script gives plenty of attention to various Mossad agents on the team, but stays mostly on Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a quiet but passionate man who’s dealing with inner turmoil caused by the loss of his sister and her children at the hands of the Nazis. He wasn’t actually at the horrific events shown in flashbacks, but his ideas of them are feverishly conjured up in his active imagination.
When Sylvia’s family gets information to Mossad that Mr. Klement might be Herr Eichmann, the mission is on. It’s a complicated operation, one that goes wrong, is corrected, goes wrong again, and is hindered by the fact that once Eichmann is snatched and clandestinely brought to a safe house for interrogation — until the flight home is ready — right wing Argentine authorities are on the lookout for him, and the Israelis are in danger.
In that safe house, Eichmann, handcuffed to a chair, and kept either blindfolded or in a dark room, calmly maintains his innocence. “I was merely a cog in a machine, digging its way to hell,” is about all he’ll concede. But played by Ben Kingsley, Eichmann is presented as a multi-dimensional person. It doesn’t matter that one Mossad agent warns another that their prisoner is “as slippery as they come,” he still manages to play psychological games with them, and hides, at least for a short while, the reality that he’s a manipulative monster.
The film’s best scenes are the two-handers with only Isaac and Kingsley, just talking, each offering up very different types of performances, working toward what appears to be a wary sort of trust. It reaches full-out ticking clock thriller status toward the end, with bad guys closing in, airport departures being delayed, and more.
The final sequences, one in a Jerusalem courtroom in 1961, another at an Argentina airport, provide the film with a rare experience: A haunting, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop ending. No one will be talking on the way out.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Matthew Orton; directed by Chris Weitz
With Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Joe Alwyn, Haley Lu Richardson