When the Third Reich went kaput, and Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler chucked their vile lives into the void rather than face this world’s justice, the detestable Adolf Eichmann, the “architect” of the fuhrer’s Final Solution, slunk his sorry ass off to Argentina. There, under an assumed name, he lived with his family in a brick house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, toiling at a Mercedes-Benz factory. But the thing about Nazis is they’re always still going to Nazi, no matter how quiet they should keep. As we see in Chris Weitz’s uneven caper-thriller Operation Finale, Eichmann (played by an appropriately sulfurous Ben Kingsley) couldn’t resist swanning into underground Nazi supper clubs and rallies, where he coyly allowed himself to be feted. If someone cracked the old joke about how, under the fascists, at least the trains ran on time, this glory hound would probably snap back, “Because of me!”
Weitz’s film, concerning a Mossad team’s 1960 hunt for Eichmann, is a sort of Argo Goes to Munich, blending heist movie jollies with some moral inquiry into justice, revenge, torture and execution. The mix is sometimes unpalatable: The gang breezily plots its big score, and dances to boogie-woogie piano, but David Ben-Gurion himself (played by Simon Russell Beale) establishes the stakes thusly: “For the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner.” It’s almost held together by the face of Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent in charge of the mission to snatch the old murderer and sneak him to Israel for trial without the Argentine government catching on. Pulsing just inches above the movie-star smile is that knot of nerves between Isaac’s eyes, that pinch of worry that sets Isaac apart, even in a leading-man role. Early on, Isaac sharks about in smashing mid-century sports jackets, radiating Clooney-esque confidence and charm as Malkin tries to convince his superiors and colleagues that he can pull all this off. But he doesn’t look convinced himself. Nothing comes easy for the best Isaac characters, and they’re not blessed with the force of self to hide this. And then when things do seem to come easy for them, as in the case of his cocksure Star Wars flyboy, things really go to hell.
In Operation Finale’s best scenes, Weitz dramatizes the tension that’s always there in Isaac’s face, emphasizing the difference between the breezy caper films we might wish we could live in and the brutal messiness of actual life. We see Isaac’s Malkin painstakingly rehearse the moves he’ll use to seize and subdue his villain; we see him caught up, chokingly, at crucial moments, in the memory of his sister, who was murdered by the Nazis. But Isaac’s pained expressions, the way doubt and conscience kink up Malkin’s impulses toward heroism, ultimately prove more engaging and revealing than Matthew Orton’s script or much of Weitz’s staging.
The scenes of planning and teamwork, suspense and complication, work well enough, though the fact that the Israeli, German and Argentinian characters all speak their lines in English robs them of richness and specificity. They’re what mainstream Hollywood remains adept at, all momentum and banter, minor surprises and minor dread. Weitz and Co. prove adept at communicating several beats of story within a single arresting shot, and they do nice work with reflections, cramped quarters and the nasty prevalence of anti-Semitism in Argentina.
The filmmakers prove less certain when working outside the templates of genre. In flashbacks, Weitz suggests the scale of Eichmann’s crimes through visions of trenches overflowing with Jewish corpses; the image is somehow obscene and banal at once, lacking the gravity even of the scenes in the X-Men movies of young Magneto at Auschwitz. After Eichmann gets grabbed — basic 20th-century history ain’t a spoiler, people — the Mossad crew must, for reasons never quite made clear, coerce their captive into signing a statement declaring that he has agreed to be taken to Israel. They have just days to do this, before the departure of the only plane they can escape in, and before Argentine authorities discover their safe house. Their stern interrogator has no luck getting Eichmann — blindfolded, polite, pathetic — to sign. One team member keeps pushing for torture. Another balks that they should have just killed him already. But Malkin sees another way: Strike up something like a friendship with their captive, sharing cigarettes, listening to his wheezing stories of childhood as the Nazi is perched on the toilet, even telling the man who designed the death camps about the family that Malkin lost to them. Eichmann offers up the just following orders excuse and insists that there’s no reason he should cooperate: “Your lawyers and your lying press will try the man they think they know, not the one who sits before you now.”
Since Malkin is the hero, we know that this approach is the correct one, though Operation Finale never makes a case as to why, exactly. At times, it seems to be edging toward the tense colloquies of Steven Spielberg’s anguished, fascinating Munich, a film that found one of cinema’s greatest orchestrators of heroic violence ambivalent about the morality of his gift. But Weitz and Orton don’t dig in, don’t question Malkin’s choices, don’t honor the temptations of revenge, don’t manage to make us fear their hero getting too close to the desperate and manipulative Eichmann. Rather than interrogate the tools of Hollywood storytelling, as Spielberg did, they use them as crutches. Toward the end, as the plot lurches — like Argo or a ’90s rom-com — toward a mad dash to the airport, Eichmann suddenly is invested in Malkin’s inner life the same way that a supervillain tends to be caught up in his opposing hero’s, monologuing about his mad brilliance. Rather than the cagey, caged mastermind who later would play dumb at trial, this Eichmann is just another movie bad guy — and Operation Finale is just another movie.