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‘Operation Finale’ looks at real-life intrigue

September 5, 2018
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We’ve talked before about the difficulties inherent to bringing stories from real life into the cinematic realm. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck; the raw truth isn’t always dramatically engaging, but you also want to do justice to events as they happened.

“Operation Finale,” directed by Chris Weitz from a screenplay by Matthew Orton, is particularly tricky, considering the heft of the story being told. It’s a recounting of the 1960 Israeli Mossad operation in Argentina to track down and capture the infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution.

While it is compelling enough, offering solid intrigue and a handful of quality performances, the film never quite rises to the level of its true-life inspiration. There’s an inconsistent energy to the proceedings that ultimately undercuts the tension and prevents the stakes from being as high as the narrative would seem to warrant. It’s quite good, but just misses being great.

In the early 1960s, the Israeli spy agency Mossad is on the hunt for Nazi war criminals who have thus far escaped answering for their crimes. When word comes that one of the most notorious of those fugitives might be living in Argentina under an assumed name, the agency springs into action.

Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, “Annihilation”) is an operative with a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon. He doesn’t always go by the book, an attitude that has caused him problems in the past both personally and professionally. That unpredictability makes the powers that be a little nervous about sending him on such a vital mission. However, his colleague Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll, “Uncle Drew”) goes to bat for him with team leader Isser Harel (Lior Raz, TV’s “Fauda”).

Peter’s former flame – and gifted physician – Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent, “Return of the Hero”) joins the team. The pair – along with Rafi, Isser and a handful of other – head to Buenos Aires with a plan to capture the man they believe to be Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley, “War Machine”).

The complexity of emotion inherent to this mission is significant; every single member of the Mossad team lost loved ones to the Final Solution engineered in large part by Eichmann. The desire for revenge must be suppressed so that Eichmann can stand trial for his crimes against the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, leaving the group to scramble for contingencies as they try desperately to avoid capture by the Nazi-sympathetic local government and law enforcement and spirit Eichmann out of the country. Peter and his crew must make hard choices – choices with real and potentially dire consequences.

“Operation Finale” tells an undeniably compelling story. The tension and intrigue generated by this real-life mission is palpable. It’s a powerful narrative, with men and women risking everything – including their lives – in an effort to obtain justice for crimes so large, so monstrous as to be almost beyond comprehension.

But while those aspects of the film are certainly engaging, laden with espionage-flavored thrills, the film shines brightest when it deals with interpersonal dynamics. Those relationships – the one that slowly develops between Peter and his captive foremost among them – are what serve as the foundation, the soul of the movie.

However, there’s something lacking. For whatever reason, things don’t quite click during some stretches; there’s a flatness that undermines the greater stakes of the situation. In those moments, the narrative sputters and the filmmakers release their grip. They’re not particularly frequent occurrences, but when they pop up, they’re tough to ignore.

The performances definitely go a long way toward compensating for those flaws. Isaac is wonderful as Malkin, a man haunted by having borne firsthand witness to the deadly depravity of the Nazi efforts. Few actors have the kind of charismatic gravitas he brings to the screen. Kingsley, meanwhile, remains one of our greatest actors (even though his recent filmography is … inconsistent … in terms of quality). He endows Eichmann with an unsettling humanity, leaving us to reconcile his monstrous actions with his clear love for his family. The interactions between the two serve as the foundation of the film; they are quietly electric when sharing the screen.

The supporting cast impresses as well. Nick Kroll’s forte might be comedy, but he’s subtly excellent in this role. Laurent is great as well, a remarkable talent. Lior Raz gives a strong performance. So too do Greg Hill, Michael Aronov, Joe Alwyn, Haley Lu Richardson … the list goes on and on. The film is wonderfully acted across the board.

“Operation Finale” is a good movie, driven by a compelling story and some first-rate performances. It doesn’t quite ascend to the level that it might have, but there’s no shame in coming up just shy of greatness. It’s a fascinating snapshot of history – one well worth seeing.

[4 out of 5]

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