‘Operation Finale’: An Unsettling Mix of Action, Historical Morality

Unbalanced Aesthetic Blends ‘Schindler’s List’ with ‘Ocean’s Eleven’

Ben Kingsley in Operation Finale
Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
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Operation Finale, directed by Chris Weitz, is yet another addition into what has turned out to be the Summer of Nazi Movies (BlacKkKlansman, Scarred Hearts, The Captain). Whatever the trend implies about our present cultural moment, this particular historical drama tracks the secret kidnapping and extradition of Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the so-called “Architect of the Final Solution,” by the Israeli Mossad in 1960. The plot centers on the Mossad team led by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) that identified and captured Eichmann, who was living a quiet postwar existence with his family in Buenos Aires. The machinations of the capture operation itself are elaborate and harrowing, but they merely setup the core arc of the film, which is a lite-philosophical chamber drama centered on negotiations in a safe-house. The Nazi mass-murderer cannot leave Argentina until he signs a legal waiver. Malkin, his boss Mossad chairman Isser Harel (the impressive Lior Raz), and his teammates (including strong performances by Nick Kroll and Michael Aronov) disagree regarding interrogation techniques, including whether to use physical torture to achieve their goal. For a historical story where the audience already knows the outcome, Operation Finale offers its audience a number of cues to nail-bite.

And also to cringe. Important arguments about legal and moral responsibility for war crimes pepper the film’s dialogue, including references to the Nuremburg trials, as well as to the historical footage of Eichmann’s televised trial in Jerusalem. But the drastic reduction in complexity here may frustrate the viewer who is actually familiar with this history, in particular the frequent nods to Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker essay and subsequent book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s argument has long been a subject of intense controversy, especially those that appear to victim blame. Infamously, Arendt suggested the Jews themselves may have collaborated in their own mass-murder. The nuances of Arendt’s problematic arguments are too complex to address at length here, but they are pantomimed midway through the film when Malkin’s character deadpans the line, “This guy convinced the rabbis to load the trains themselves.” The gesture illustrates the film’s periodic historical and political recklessness.

Other Nazi-revenge films loom in the background here, especially Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). Like the Tarantino film, Operation Finale revels in its portrayal of a crack team of Jewish Nazi-hunters. The film even casts Mélanie Laurent, who played Shosanna Dreyfus, the self-proclaimed “face of Jewish vengeance” in the Tarantino film. Here, Laurent plays Peter’s fictional love interest, the doctor Hanna Elian, who is the film’s moral compass. Elian’s job is to administer a sedative to Eichmann for the trip back to Israel; she almost declines because she fears she will accidentally kill him. The exceptional Laurent gives a fine performance despite the limitations of the role, but the choice of this character’s name is another mark of the film’s carelessness. When “Hanna Elian” is first introduced, viewers familiar with the Eichmann story all but inevitably hear “Hannah Arendt,” in what appears to be a deliberate hat-tip. If this is the case, it’s a very confusing one, which only underscores the irresponsibility of the other Arendt references.

The heist quality of the film’s action sequences does engage, although, again, it feels a little wasteful to stage a high-stakes heist when the main audience presumably already knows the outcome. The sometimes playful tone of these sequences also grates uncomfortably against the film’s patently disturbing Holocaust reenactments. Operation Finale offers a sometimes unsettling mix of raucous, action-y cinematic pleasure and disturbing, historical twentieth-century morality. Its unbalanced aesthetic blends Schindler’s List with Ocean’s Eleven.

It’s inevitably weird to watch Sir Kingsley, who won an Oscar in 1983 for playing Gandhi, play Eichmann. Perhaps it speaks to the celebrated actor’s many gifts that he manages to bring such a chilling character to life visually, especially when forced to work with such didactic writing during the film’s safe-house scenes. As historical figures, of course, Gandhi and Eichmann could hardly be more different. Yet insofar as the films Gandhi and Operation Finale both promote personality myth at the expense of complex historical reality, perhaps there is some continuity in the choice.

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