As a history buff, I was excited about the prospect of Operation Finale. The story of how the Mossad tracked down and abducted genocidal asshole Adolph Eichmann in Argentina so that he could stand trial for his crimes against humanity is a fascinating chapter in the annals of postwar international intrigue. And for the first half of the film, we get exactly what I expected — a moderately tense melodrama about the snatch-and-grab operation that ultimately netted the “architect of the final solution” — but the second half veers into some particularly strange territory that undermines the narrative’s pacing and structure as well as its thematic focus. What starts out as a somewhat conventional spy thriller becomes an awkward character study that, while it may or may not be historically accurate, just isn’t as interesting as it should have been.
And that question of historical veracity is important here, because the actual details of the mission at the core of Operation Finale are well documented, as far as such things go. Writer Matthew Orton is clearly aware of the facts at hand, but takes an odd structural approach by largely glossing over the events that could be easily dramatized and instead dedicating a large swath of the film’s running time to the relationship between Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac). While Operation Finale initially seems poised to deliver a suspenseful heist premise, it instead turns into a stockholm-syndrome-adjascent hostage drama, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom.
This is not the first time Ben Kingsley has been tied to a chair, and he does it well. But though comparisons to Roman Polanski’s 1995 film Death and the Maidenprove that Kingsley can be a compelling screen presence even when he barely gets to move, they also prove that Operation Finale should have picked a story and stuck to it. The film’s bifurcated structure gives short shrift to its spy thriller genre conventions while also failing to adequately serve its psychological drama, creating the impression of two half finished scripts held together by narrative duct tape.
While both Kingsley and Isaac deliver the competent performances one would expect, director Chris Weitz seems too fixated on creating mass-market appeal to allow his leads to delve into the murkier waters of their characters’ respective interior landscapes. Visually, Weitz’s film lacks the big-budget polish of Steven Spielberg’s Munich or the cheap dynamism of Ben Affleck’s Argo, landing somewhere in between with a dull thud of genre dissonance. Neither prestige picture nor popcorn flick, Operation Finale can’t seem to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.
There are certainly worse movies in theaters this week, and those with a specific interest in the Eichmann case will find Operation Finale close enough for government work. Still, it feels like an exercise in style over substance in which the style is deficient and the substance underserved, which is extremely unfortunate given the gravity of that substance itself. It’s a great story, and anyone looking for a broader context of its significance in the history of espionage should pick up a copy of Gordon Thomas’ 1999 book Gideon’s Spies: A Secret History of the Mossad. Those hoping to glean something more than speculation and superficial insight from Operation Finale will come away disappointed.