Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Operation Finale is a prime example of the movies released at the tail-end of August and into the first week of September; a film once presumed to have awards potential but that isn’t solid enough to release during the peak Oscar months, yet it also isn’t capable of holding its own in the summer time. A film without a release date country, so to speak. The Chris Weitz-directed Nazi drama tells a unique story within a genre that’s been explored from practically ever angle, but overabundance of sentimentality, stock stereotypes, and flat characters leaves the entire affair feeling little more than a basic WWII story.
After the events of the Holocaust, Nazi Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) fled Germany to make his home in Argentina. In 1960, Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) gets a bead on Eichmann’s location, and with a group of agents travels to Argentina to extract the “architect of the Final Solution” and bring him back to Israel to stand trial.
Operation Finale is a direct descendant of the 1978 feature, The Boys From Brazil, itself the story of a Nazi hunter (in this case played by Gregory Peck) who tracks down Joseph Mengele (played by Laurence Olivier) living in South America. Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton hope you don’t know about that film’s existence – and based on the fact that it’s 40 years old, most won’t. None of this is to immediately condemn Operation Finale, but once you know about a movie starring Peck and Olivier that deconstructs this movie, you can’t help but see this as an also-ran.
Orton’s screenplay hits all the beats you expect from a film of this genre. Isaac’s Peter Malkin is a mama’s boy still suffering over the loss of his beloved sister during the Holocaust. It’s an event that’s affected him so much he can’t have any type of meaningful relationship, no matter how googly the eyes of his ex-lady love, Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) makes at him. If you’re content to explore the psyche of a man so hobbled by the death of his sister, you’re out of luck because Malkin is a character written with just enough grist to elevate him above stock team member, but far from being developed enough to care about.
There are threads of intriguing stories that, if extrapolated could induce a more nuanced feature. Not only do we have Malkin’s storyline, but the film opens with the introduction of Sylvia Hermann (played with perfect grace by Haley Lu Richardson), a young girl who unknowingly starts dating Eichmann’s son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn). The two have a meet-cute during a screening of Imitation of Life – a savvy reference to classic film fans who know Weitz’s mother, Susan Kohner, stars in the feature – and go on a date that involves dropping in on a Nazi rally. With little substance in-between Sylvia is immediately inducted into proving Klaus is Eichmann’s son, and after one final confrontation between the couple early in the film their plot ends. Too often, narrative seams like this do little more than move the plot along when, it’s assumed, far more complexity, while not suited for a film’s three-act structure, existed to get from A to B.
Because Eichmann is the most interesting character, it stands to reason that he’d be the focus. Despite the marketing playing this up as Isaac’s vehicle, Operation Finale is a showcase for Kingsley. Makeup to make him look younger in flashbacks aside, he’s phenomenal as Eichmann. Kingsley’s performance could draw comparisons to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. The audience, and the team assembled, never fully know whether they’re playing him or vice versa. Kingsley is a brick wall. Is Eichmann a sensitive family man, pleading with Peter to let him know whether his family is safe (and stifling back a sob when he hears they are)? Or is he the sociopathic smooth-talker who revels in Peter’s anger over what happened to his sister? Because the script gives Eichmann needed depth, coupled with Kingsley’s performance, the frightening reality becomes that he could just as easily be both.
The nearly two-hour feature saves up much of its suspense and anticipation for the finale (pun intended), leaving over an hour of blase rhetoric. Malkin’s sister pops up repeatedly to remind us that our hero is emotionally invested in Eichmann’s capture. Even if you don’t know this is a true story, it feels melodramatic, as if we wouldn’t care about him without this dead woman hanging about his neck. Isaac is solid as Peter Malkin, but his performance (and the character) are highly reminiscent of his previous feature, the equally old school true story, The Promise. Like that film, Isaac goes for muted, on the verge of tired for most of the feature. His relationship with Laurent’s Hanna seems to exist strictly on the page, as the two exhibit little chemistry unaided by the fact they spend zero time together – much of their “relationship” is spoken of happening before the film started.
The actor truly comes out of his own opposite Kingsley. Once the two start playing a cat-and-mouse game – Peter wants Eichmann to sign a form voluntarily submitting to go to Israel – the film becomes an intimate contest of wills. Each has something they want, hiding their hand and waiting for the other to slip. It’s amazing watching the two question whether they’re convincing the other person to do what they want. When they finally reveal their true natures it’s a powder keg, culminating with Kingsley just dominating everyone. If only it wasn’t all undone by a climax that’s deceptively similar to Argo.
Operation Finale is a film perfectly suited for the beginning of September. It’ll keep you engaged in the moment, yet will disappear completely by the time the real awards contenders pop up in a few weeks. It’s a shame, too, because with a more capable director and a tighter script Kingsley might have been in the awards conversation. Isaac and him are perfect when they’re finally allowed to open up to each other. If only it didn’t take two hours of fits and starts to do so.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.