On paper, the 1960 capture and extraction of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann seems like it should be an incredibly cinematic story. It's a tale of espionage, duplicity, kidnapping, and high stakes, all revolving around one of the most evil men ever to walk on this planet. In practice, however, director Chris Weitz's Operation Finale offers a different perspective. The natural twists and turns of the true story bring some thrills, and there are some ace performances involved, but it's not a telling that is nearly as compelling as you think it should be, and misses its chance at some real bite. It's a film that could be Inglourious Basterds-meets-Argo, but it very much isn't either. In retrospect would have been well-suited to just borrow the subtitle of author Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, as its name: The Banality Of Evil -- with emphasis on the "banal."
Based on a script by Matthew Orton, the story kicks off nearly 20 years after the Nuremberg trials with the revelation that Adolf Eichmann (Sir Ben Kingsley) - a war criminal sought for his involvement orchestrating the Holocaust -- may be hiding out in Argentina. When this news makes its way back to Israeli Mossad agents, a plan is put together to get Eichmann out of the country and brought to Jerusalem so that he stands trial and pays for his crimes against humanity. Under assumed identities, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) leads a team of agents to South America with the intention of confirming their target's identity and smuggling him back home.
With the help of a local girl (Haley Lu Richardson) who has begun dating the adopted son of Eichmann, Malkin and his agents are successfully able to strike and capture, but while making their exit plans run into complications with the papers needed to fly out of the country. As a result, the group is forced to lay low in a house with their hostage, but this is easier said than done given that Eichmann is a master manipulator willing to try any tactic to escape his fate in Israel.
Operation Finale has all the necessary components for a thriller where it feels like the walls are closing in, but it never really manages to create that feeling. There are Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the neighborhood trying to find Eichmann and those who kidnapped him, but it's not a narrative that has any huge shocks or creates any direct threat to the protagonist characters before the climax, failing to generate a much needed sense of urgency through the second act. As a result, the heart of the film is Malkin and Eichmann having conversations in a bedroom, the former trying to get extraction papers signed, and the latter trying to pull a Hannibal Lecter act. As you're watching you can remind yourself that what's at stake is very important, and abbreviated it could make for an interesting stage play, but as a movie it has a plodding problem.
The boat is ultimately kept afloat, however, thanks to the fact that it has some of the two of the best working actors bailing it out. Armed with a tragic, dark and mysterious backstory, Oscar Isaac once again proves himself one of the industry's great leads, as he equips Peter Malkin with an earnest spirit, a subtle rage, and a strong sense of justice. Ben Kingsley arguably has the tougher role, as audiences go into the story recognizing Adolf Eichmann as monstrous scum, but his performance both leans into that, and lets you see what some might have confused for charm. Together the two make great scene partners -- they're just in need of stronger material.
There was a whole lot of potential here, and while not all of it is squandered, Operation Finale should be a movie that's better than "fine." Those primarily driven to see the film because of the performances will get the most satisfaction out of it, so far as they don't expect to find too much more to it. At the end of the day it will do for now as a cinematic adaptation of the story, but hopefully other filmmaker will someday try other crack at it at fully mine everything that is available from actual events.