Thrillers based on real-life events have to walk a very fine line. Hug too closely to the historical record and it may not feel sufficiently cinematic. Fabricate too much in the service of dramatic license and it can come off as disrespectful. All of this is even stiffer of a line when talking about World War II, and specifically, the Holocaust. We live in a time when Holocaust Deniers and followers of the Nazi Party are back in the mainstream. So, that just adds to the mess. Luckily, “Operation Finale” is in no danger of offending anyone. Unfortunately, it also never quite comes together enough to recommend as a film. Intended as another “Argo,” the flick doesn’t have the same soft touch. In trying to be as mainstream as possible, something is slightly lost in translation.
“Operation Finale” is a movie with a handful of strong moments, but one that falls shy of its intended mark. The film can hang its hat on the central performances of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, though it also could have given them more to do. It clearly is setting up a battle of wits between the two men. And yet, too often their scenes together are short or don’t further their relationship. For much of the second act, too little happens. More of a focus on their mental duel would have gone a long way towards making this all work. The movie comes up short, but admittedly, not by much.
In the days after World War II came to an end, most Nazis were either captured or killed. One notable one remained in hiding. That man was Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley), the mastermind of the Final Solution. He was at large for years, though one day some new intelligence comes to Mossad agent Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) suggesting his whereabouts. A chance encounter between Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) and Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) puts the Nazi on Israel’s radar. Rafi brings it up the chain of command, eventually getting an operation approved. Recruiting Peter Malkin (Isaac) to lead the charge, a group is put together. In 1960, Peter leads the team on a secret mission to Argentina, hoping to capture Eichmann.
Along with Rafi, Peter has former lover Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent) among his operatives. A plan is put into place and executed, resulting in Eichmann’s capture. While the team waits for a chance to leave the country, they sit with the war criminal, hoping to get a signed confession from him. Only Peter makes inroads with him, all the while thinking back to a tragic bit of history for him. At the same time, Klaus and Nazi sympathizers are on the hunt for their missing man. History dictates what happens, the but the film does its best to make it a tense affair.
The best moments of “Operation Finale” center on the scenes between Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Isaac is charming and suave, while also kind of an everyman here. He makes mistakes. He jokes a lot. It’s almost as if he’s playing a low rent version of James Bond. Isaac makes an excellent spy. He’s clearly best in show here. As for Kingsley, it’s strong work, especially when you realize that he played the flip side of this coin in “Schindler’s List.” Now playing a notorious Nazi, he does his best to make the character three dimensional. It’s not a performance on that level, but it’s better than Kingsley has been in a bit. The plot and the script undercut him a bit towards the end, but for a large swath of time, his character is intriguing. It’s just a shame that the film didn’t do more with the two of them.
Aside from the main duo, it’s a mixed bag. Nick Kroll is fine, but he seems miscast here. Melanie Laurent is woefully underused. The same goes for Haley Lu Richardson. Joe Alwyn is purposefully heinous, but also in and out of the picture. In addition, other supporting roles include Michael Aronov, Simon Russell Beale, Greg Hill, Greta Scacchi, Peter Strauss, and more. In the end, though, it’s a starring vehicle for Isaac, with Kinsley being the supporting player of note. They hold their weight. The production on the whole just can’t match them.
Director Chris Weitz is trying something new here, and kudos to him for that. Unfortunately, the script by Matthew Orton is slightly lacking. Weitz is a workmanlike filmmaker, so he needs a better screenplay to lift him up. Orton hits the expected beats, but he falls short of making you care. You never fully get the feel for why this story needed to be told. An enjoyable score by Alexandre Desplat and solid cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe can only take you so far. Orton and Weitz end up too concerned with a race against time in the second half of the movie. The “Argo” comparison really takes shape there. Unfortunately, that’s part of how the film falls flat. The less it tries to be a crowd-pleasing the thriller, the better off it is.
If “Argo” was the north star for “Operation Finale,” it clearly fell shy of the mark. It’s harder than it looks to pull off what Ben Affleck and company won Academy Awards for. There are enjoyable moments, just not quite enough to warrant a recommendation. Isaac fans will be into this role, though he could have been given more to do. It just ends up a mixed bag. You certainly could do worse for a late August release. Just look at what else is currently in theaters. The thing is, you can do better too. A missed opportunity, that’s what this ultimately is.