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What’s to be done with a defenseless Nazi? With fascism making a comeback in the United States, that’s been the question on many pundits’ minds, a decisive point where the rubber of ethics meets the road of politics. It’s also the central query of Operation Finale, a dramatization of the 1960 mission to retrieve Hitler’s henchman Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and bring him to stand trial in Israel. Extradition laws prohibited the Mossad agents tasked with apprehending the notorious SS officer from simply tossing him on a plane and calling it a day, so they had to first get his signature on an official document and then smuggle him out of the country incognito. The latter task wraps the film up with a risky extraction clipped out of a cut-rate Argo, but the former proves even more complicated.
With one of the world’s most evil men tied to a chair, it would have been easy enough for his captors to beat a John Hancock out of him and proceed onward. They instead decided to do things the hard way, endeavoring to convince Eichmann that if he truly believed he was “only following orders”, as the common defense went, then he shouldn’t have any trepidation about proving it to a jury of his peers. So begins a rather sedate battle of wills between a mannered, urbane Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and his strapping interrogator Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) in which neither party has a clear upper hand. After all, as the Mossad team states, this is a man who convinced millions to board trains leading them to their deaths. He knows how to work people.
Kingsley’s done this all before: in 1994, he played a war criminal hiding out in South America who’s taken prisoner by a vengeful Sigourney Weaver and ultimately spared in an act of soul-cleansing mercy. That film, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden, mounted the same argument in favor of civility that Operation Finale sands to a soft nub. To lay hands on Eichmann, as one of Peter’s colleagues comes dangerously close to doing in a scene that all but instructs the audience to cry “No!”, would be to sink to his level. When they go genocidal, we go high.
Aside from the occasionally turbulent tonal modulations between cracking espionage thriller and Silence of the Lambs-style two-hander, that moral reductionism is the blemish marring an otherwise well-acted thespians’ showcase. Chris Weitz’s direction and the dialogue in Matthew Orton’s script first paint Eichmann in a discomfortingly sympathetic light, daring the audience to buy his spiel about being a good German and doing right by his family. (Here’s the Hannibal Lecter bit; Peter’s haunted by the memory of his dead sister, and makes the fatal error of letting Eichmann know this.) Accordingly, this leaves Isaac to play Peter as a gritty Captain Israel, an overly familiar mold with which he nevertheless does the best he can.
It’s not especially convincing portraiture, not only because the average viewer knows what they know of Eichmann, but because he speaks like every other icy-veined manipulator to have come before him, including himself. He methodically works through the classic sociopath’s bait-and-switch, empathizing with Peter by exchanging names, then conversation, then gestures of mutual humanity. When he has the eventual outburst and the composed facade falls away, just as it did in Death and the Maiden, it affirms what the audience already knows but still might like hearing. Deep down, bad people are always villainous – the precise opposite of Hannah Arendt’s immortal wisdom about the “banality of evil” that Eichmann inspired.
A conclusion this thin can’t hope to fill out Weitz’s two-hour run time, so there’s some other meshugas about a spoiled romance between Eichmann’s son (Joe Alwyn, unsettlingly well-cast as an Aryan Youth) and his unknowingly Jewish girlfriend (Haley Lu Richardson, the biggest stretch in a film weirdly intent on passing off goyim as members of the Tribe). We get some down time among the other members of Peter’s squad, least dull among them an officer played by Nick Kroll, who continues the test of how seriously audiences are willing to take him that he began in 2016 with Loving. And there’s the undercooked romantic subplot between Peter and Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), the team medic and token woman invented for the sole purpose of injecting a little passion for good measure.
It all feels like padding for a film that doesn’t have the philosophical depth to back up its analytical ambitions. The debate over the utility of violence and the dignity owed prisoners of war has raged since time immemorial, and recent developments have only amplified the decibel level. Operation Finale zeroes in on these complex dynamics, only to erase their nuance. The final title cards spell out Eichmann’s demise as if to bring closure to the horrors of Nazism, but there’s ample evidence that the matter has only grown more insidiously tangled. What good is a ethical thought experiment that ends firm and unbothered, convinced of its own rightness?
Source: The Guardian
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