The first impression that “Operation Finale” (2018) gave was that it has a Hollywood problem. Or maybe a history problem. Or perhaps a little bit of both. Regardless of semantics, it definitely has a problem. The Nazi-hunting thriller, produced by and starring Oscar Isaac, is a perfectly serviceable addition to the long line of similar post-World War Two thrillers before it. Frustratingly, however, director Chris Weitz cannot decide if he wants to make a film like George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” (2014) or like Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005).
The real-life hunt for escaped Nazi war criminals in South America has lent itself to films both complex and sensitive, as well as exploitative and hackneyed over the years. Recent additions to this genre, such as 2013’s “Wakolda,” an Argentine speculative thriller about the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, have also managed to strike a balance between thrills and historical drama without really delving into the horrific crimes of their antagonists.
But “Operation Finale,” which details the Mossad’s 1960 mission to capture Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and take him to Israel to stand trial, seems to want to tick all these boxes at once. It’s balanced and thought-provoking, except when it’s cheap and sanitized. It’s sensitive, riveting historical drama, except when it’s every forgettable espionage film you’ve ever seen.
Perhaps to its own detriment, “Operation Finale” is by no means a bad movie. In its moments, it achieves everything such a film should aspire to: sensitivity, delicateness, tension, drama and emotion. Alexandre Desplat delivers a simmering, halting score; the camerawork is fluid and exciting when it needs to be and stark and unflinching at other times.
The acting in “Operation Finale” is somewhat of a mixed bag. Beyond star Isaac, the film’s ensemble cast features names as diverse as Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), Nick Kroll and the venerable Ben Kingsley as Eichmann. Rising stars Joe Alwyn of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2017) and Haley Lu Richardson of “Edge of Seventeen” (2016) feature as the trademark petulant Nazi spawn and his girlfriend — in cahoots with the Mossad — but nonetheless fail to make much of an impression. Isaac diligently lends his varied, worldly persona to real-life agent Peter Malkin, but ultimately doesn’t set the world alight.
More memorable is Kingsley’s chilling performance as Eichmann, which is rather poetic given his famed role as Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List” (1993). He portrays the infamous SS officer with a bone-rattling intensity constantly belied by the mundanity of his incognito factory foreman life in Argentina. However, the frankness and insistence that he was only following orders are undercut by the cold, calculating hatred seething beneath his surface. In a particularly intense scene, Kingsley’s Eichmann taunts Isaac’s Malkin about his murdered loved ones, trying to induce Malkin to kill him. Yet, when Eichmann constantly inquires about his family’s safety, we are reminded of the squirm-inducing fact that these infamous war criminals are, on the surface, perfectly ordinary people with families and worries of their own.
If “Operation Finale” had spent more of its creative energy on moments like that and less of it on throwaway office politics humor back at the Mossad’s headquarters, it would have been an exceptional film. It also squanders other opportunities for a more nuanced, complete narrative. Agent Moshe Tabor (Greg Hill), for example, would much rather Eichmann get retribution than be brought back to Israel for the fair trial his six million victims never received, yet this tension never really goes anywhere. The film’s pacing is also rather strange: The climactic capture of Eichmann happens less than an hour into the film, and Weitz fails to recreate anything approaching its weight for the remainder of the film.
“Operation Finale” is a perfectly fine movie, and that is its worst offense by far. The film does its job, featuring rare moments of brilliance and a fine performance by Kingsley. But it never really goes beyond that, which is supremely disappointing for a film that details such a momentous occasion in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. What could have been a truly great film winds up being just okay.