The 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli intelligence agents in Argentina and his surreptitious removal to Israel are treated intelligently, if without any great imagination, in Chris Weitz’s docu-drama. “Operation Finale” is buoyed by contributions from a fine ensemble cast, most notably Ben Kingsley, who draws a portrait of the war criminal that’s far more than a mere impersonation, capturing the man’s wiliness as well as his continued embrace of the horrific ideology to which he had devoted his considerable administrative skills in the Final Solution.
The script by Matthew Orton does a creditable job of laying out the details of the complicated operation—not an easy task, since various members of the team of Mossad and Shin Bet personnel who carried it out have presented recollections that vary in certain specifics. Orton seems to have gravitated toward the account of Peter Malkin, whom he places at center stage in the person of Oscar Isaac.
Malkin was certainly the agent who actually grabbed Eichmann as he walked from a bus to his home outside Buenos Aires, wrestling him to the ground before he was trundled into a waiting car. But the portrayal of him as the agent who eventually persuaded Eichmann to sign a document agreeing to be taken out of the country for trial in Israel, after the prisoner’s protracted refusal to do so, may well represent dramatic license, since other accounts call that into question. (Nor does Orton make entirely clear the reason such a document was needed—was it required by the Argentine government, or by El Al, the Israeli airline, as a defense against possible legal problems later?)
Such vagaries are inevitable in recreations like this, however; “Operation Finale” is a work of historical drama, not scholarship, and as such it’s largely successful, if somewhat old-fashioned in approach.
The movie begins with news being brought to Isser Harel (Lior Raz), the Director of Mossad, and Rati Eitan (Nick Kroll), of Shin Bet, regarding a possible lead regarding Eichmann’s location; the source is Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss), a blind German Jew whose daughter Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson) has been dating a young man named Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), perhaps Adolf’s son, in Buenos Aires. Harel is reluctant to spend time on what might be a wild goose chase, but eventually relents, and his team reports that there is a high degree of probability that a factory worker calling himself Ricardo Klement (Kingsley) is in fact Eichmann, living with his wife Vera (Greta Scacchi), Klaus and an infant son.
A squad is then assembled to go to Buenos Aires, capture Eichmann and return him to Israel for trial. Harel leads the group, which also includes Eitan, Malkin—a soul troubled by nightmares concerning the murder of his sister and her children by the Nazis—and ace interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov), along with a number of others, most notably Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent), a nurse who will sedate Eichmann as necessary. After the capture, Eichmann is kept in a safe house for more than a week as Aharoni, in this telling, unsuccessfully urges him to sign the necessary form to allow his departure; eventually it is Malkin, by cannily bonding with him to a certain extent, who secures the signature.
The final reel depicts the transport of Eichmann, sedated and dressed in an airline uniform, to the airfield, just as Argentine security forces invade the safe house, and the departure of the plane, connected with Israel’s participation in a celebration of the anniversary of Argentine independence, after a last-minute hiccup involving the theft of a necessary flight plan. Malkin replaces the paperwork with only seconds to spare. A coda shows the squad members at Eichmann’s trial.
There are elements in this telling—such as Malkin’s romantic relationship with Hanna—that seem to come out of a Hollywood wartime melodrama, and the flashback sequences, including Malkin’s imagining of his sister’s death and even the scenes of the atrocities in which Eichmann took part, despite his protestations to the contrary, that come across as heavy-handed. Other aspects of the picture, such as the near-collapse of the plan as the Argentine forces invade the safe house just as the team is leaving it, or the last-minute recognition of Eichmann by a guard at the airport, which leads to the plane’s being forbidden to take off even as police (as well as Eichmann’s colleagues from the German community of Argentina who have been desperately searching for him since the abduction) are arriving at the gates, that strain credulity and seem to have been choreographed merely to make things more exciting.
Still, overall this is an engrossing account of a truly amazing espionage operation. The story has been told on screen before, from the quickie “Operation Eichmann” (1961), in which Werner Klemperer played him, through “The House on Garibaldi Street” (1979), which was based on Harel’s book (and in which Martin Balsam, played the Israeli spy chief), to “The Man Who Captured Eichmann” (1996), based directly on Malkin’s memoir, with Robert Duvall as Eichmann and Arliss Howard as Malkin. But this is certainly the best of the lot.
Weitz might not be the first director to come to mind as a perfect fit for the project, but he does a workmanlike job, and he’s aided by a fine crew—production designer David Brisbin, costumer Connie Balduzzi, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and editor Pamela Martin. The action is complemented by a propulsive score from Alexandre Desplat, which gives the opening credits a surge of energy that starts things off on a powerful note.
And the cast is very strong, with Kingsley cannily conveying Eichmann’s combination of humanity and monstrousness, cunning and neediness, submissiveness and arrogance. The script doesn’t try to explain him, and Kingsley can’t penetrate the mask any more than Hannah Arendt could in her famous characterization of him as an expression of the banality of evil. But Kingsley makes him fascinatingly opaque. The other especially eye-catching turn comes from Raz as the intense Harel, though Simon Russell Beale certainly seizes attention in his single scene as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Isaac, who also served as one of the producers, cuts a fine figure as Malkin, especially good in his cat-and-mouse conversations with Kingsley, who brings out the best in every actor he has scenes with. Kroll brings his comic touch to the wisecracking Eitan, and Aronov a surly confidence to Aharoni, who’s nonplussed when Malkin takes over the effort to get Eichmann’s signature. Unfortunately Laurent hasn’t much to work with, but Richardson (as demure here as she was outgoing in “Support the Girls”) brings nuance to her relatively small role, particularly in the scenes she shares with the handsome Alwyn as Eichmann’s son. Greta Scacchi adds some intriguingly homebody notes as Eichmann’s wife Vera.
“Operation Finale” doesn’t possess the brooding power of a film like Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” about the later Israeli operation to track down the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Olympics massacre. But in its more straightforward way, it is a fitting tribute to the men—and woman—who pulled off one of the most remarkable kidnappings in modern history.