'Operation Finale' Is So Humane It Might Make You Feel for a Nazi Character
But empathy is a different thing than sympathy.
Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale opens on a scene of unbridled rage. We meet Oscar Isaac’s Mossad agent Peter Malkin while he’s on a mission to track down a Nazi officer in hiding. When his squad eventually executes the man in cold blood, Malkin shrugs it off. They are Jewish spies from the young nation of Israel more than a decade after World War II’s end, and they’re hunting for Nazis.
But this violence is a far cry from the places Operation Finale will go. The film eventually brings both Malkin, its protagonist, and the viewer to a place where they’ll treat one of the worst Nazis ever with compassion and understanding.
Shortly after the initial shock of this violent first scene wears off, the foundation for Operation Finale emerges: Someone’s discovered the hiding place of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for the Holocaust’s “Final Solution.” He’s hiding out in Argentina, so Israeli agents embark on a complex mission to confirm his identity and capture him to stand trial in Israel.
Operation Finale could have easily been a dour melodrama that weighs on the soul. The source material is obviously heavy enough. But the film thrives in its subtlety; it neither paints Eichmann as a horrible monster or oversells any lofty, overwrought narratives about justice in the face of atrocity.
When Gideon Hausner (Allan Corduner), the main prosecutor in Eichmann’s trial, makes his opening statement and cries out, “With me are six million accusers,” we see only his back from the perspective of the overcrowded audience.
That’s because Operation Finale is not interested in the grandiose moments of history or in dwelling on the millions that died. It is a story about the lasting impact that such a tragedy had on the people that were left behind — including those responsible for that tragedy.
What gives heart, and grounding perspective, to Operation Finale is Malkin. Isaac delicately sells Malkin as a good-natured, capable, self-assured loner with more charm than he needs in the harsh world of espionage. He sometimes makes rash decisions, but he’s smart, sensitive, and nuanced.
He is Poe Dameron if the man had any chill whatsoever.
Malkin is a bit of a loose cannon, harboring deep anger after his sister died in the Holocaust. He draws and paints the dreams he has of her, and even though his rage gets the better of him at times, the ghost of his sister serves as a source of comfort more often than it does of anger. He thinks of her often when he’s recruited for the mission with a group of seven other agents.
For a stretch, Operation Finale feels like an exciting heist movie as the crew is assembled, Ocean’s Eleven-style. But before long, it trails into more interesting, genuine territory that makes espionage look like a lot of detail-oriented, boring drudgery.
Each character has to take separate flights with many layovers to get from Israel to Argentina. Once there, they use cover identities and coordinate with local assistance about renting cars and buying groceries. The squad must capture a photo of Eichmann and confirm his identity before they can even start planning his abduction. Once they do that, they spend weeks rehearsing their plan until they have it down to a science.
The James Bond and Mission: Impossible films make espionage sexy, each character flying by the seat of their pants. They brim with machismo and the promise that they can do anything: Gunfighting, interrogation, seduction, flying, and so on. In the much more real Operation Finale, each character has their specialty, a reason why they’re there.
At the film’s turning point, the entire group is forced to hold up in a safe house with Eichmann as prisoner for almost two weeks. It’s at that moment that Operation Finale transforms from heist film into a tense, frustrating, but satisfying experience that feels deeply reminiscent of Argo.
To get safe passage out of Argentina, the Mossad agents have to get a signed confession out of Eichmann. Rather than simply drug the man and transport him halfway around the world to stand trial for a crime he cannot deny, the team are forced to communicate with a person they assume is a horrible monster. The courageous triumph of this film is conveying that he’s not.
Ben Kingsley’s performance as Eichmann is graceful and complex. Eichmann isn’t a man wracked with guilt, but he’s also not malicious or a determined exterminator of the Jewish race. He is, on one hand, a man touting the same overused Nazi excuse that he was just “following orders.” But on the other, he’s also the kind of man that laughs with his young son and buys his wife flowers on their anniversary.
Most of Malkin’s allies refuse to accept Eichmann’s inherent humanness — including the traditional interrogator who wants to coerce the signature — but through an ongoing tête-à-tête between Eichmann and Malkin, the two men develop a bond that comes shockingly close to friendship.
How could a man like Malkin, who’s lost so much, show any measure of compassion to a man like Eichmann? This should seem impossible, and yet Malkin manages enough compassion to earnestly convince Eichmann to do what’s right. And this Nazi does what’s right. Between the both of them, they prove that the betterment of humanity and the nature of justice comes from a place of compassion rather than vengeance.
Operation Finale offers a refreshing, new perspective on the broader World War II genre in this regard, allowing us to empathize with the Nazi villain even if we never reach sympathy. Somewhere within that subtle distinction lies a very humane meditation on the nature of justice and compassion in the face of the world’s worst atrocities. But it’s also a reminder that all of history’s greatest villains were still mere men — nothing more, nothing less.
Operation Finale will be released in theaters August 29, 2018.