Nutshell: Real-life Nazi hunters get a powerful and moving film tribute, thanks to a stellar ensemble cast and nimble screenplay. Kingsley and Isaac deliver performances people will be talking about when award ballots start to fly. Don’t even bother with popcorn with this one; you’ll be too riveted to the screen. Grade: A-
“We should be putting him down like a mad dog.”
Story: During WWII Adolph Eichmann conceived and carried out the Final Solution, which led to the deaths of over six million Jews, along with millions of other individuals. Eichmann disappeared after the War’s end. In 1960, Mossad agents in Israel were tipped off to the possibility of Eichmann’s location in Argentina. A team of agents were sent to capture him, alive, for trial.
Genre I’d put it in: Powerful Docudramas
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the real-life capture of WWII war criminal Adolph Eichmann by members of the Mossad.
Gotta say: I enjoy Nazi smackdown films. Something about the satisfaction of seeing evil get the comeuppance it deserves gladdens my soul. The Debt, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Inglourious Basterds, all give me the happy. Even films like X-Men: First Class and The Boys from Brazil give good payback. (And let’s not forget Little Nicky‘s Hitler, who gets a pineapple schtupping every day at 4pm. Juvenile, but I can’t hate it.)
But what I love more than fictional or straight-up fantasy retellings are docudramas that really let me revel in the payback these…things deserve. Judgement at Nuremberg is the pinnacle of these sorts of films, but now another will be put up on that shelf; Operation Finale. No, nobody can touch the pairing of director Stanely Kramer and actors Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. But Finale digs into the capture of “the architect of the Final Solution”, Adolph Eichmann, focusing on the agents that effected his capture. And while a based-on retelling could have been preachy and overly laudatory, Finale delivers the story in a warts-and-all narrative, and the squabbles, foibles and hiccups make this film all the more compelling.
As Eichmann, Kingsley delivers us a cipher; a killer who has an oily way with people, and still believes that everything he did was for the greater good. We don’t get much of his interior life, perhaps because the man himself denied anyone access. However, Kingsley’s portrayal gives us glimpses of a ruthless man who cared about his family and Fatherland, but little else. He does more with a glance – or even blindfolded – than many other actors could dream of. It’s an amazing performance, and extremely unnerving.
But this story isn’t really about the Nazi, it’s about his capture and the people who put their lives on the line to get justice. Isaac’s Peter Malkin is haunted by the specter of his sister, who died during The Final Solution, but nobody knows exactly how or where. This combination of survivor’s guilt, hopelessness and anger colors his actions with Eichmann, and with the rest of Malkin’s comrades, and Isaac balances these emotions beautifully.
Other actors that stand out in this ensemble cast are Nick Kroll as fellow Mossad member Rari Eitan, Greg Hill as Moshe Tabor, and Lior Raz as Mossad leader Isser Harel. Each actor in this film digs deep, so rather than trying to single out individuals, I just let their lovely performances wash over me. Oh, and I’d be remiss to forget Haley Lu Richardson (Split) as informant Sylvia Hermann, a girl who finds herself dating Eichmann’s son. A scene where she accompanies her new boyfriend to a “meeting” where Nazis relive the “good old days” and long for more just like it shows just how deep the Nazis were entrenched in Argentinia. Richardson’s performance is quiet – in fact, she barely utters a peep in this scene – but her talent makes me want to see more of her serious chops. Get on that, Hollywood.
While this is a docudrama, there have been shifts in characters and scenes for dramatic effect. One is the character of Dr. Hannah Elian (played by Mélanie Laurent), who in reality was Dr. Yonah Elian, a male anesthesiologist. I figure this switch in gender helped make the story less of a sausagefest, and built in a bit of past-romance discomfort between the film’s Elaian and Malkin. Isaac and Laurent have great on-screen chemistry, so I’m not upset at this switcheroo. Finale also changes a major plot point, with the film’s agents stranded in Argentina for ten days. In reality, the team was trying to locate “Doctor of Death” Josef Mengele, but when the trail got cold they left without him.
What really struck me was the way director Chris Weitz and screeenwriter Matthew Orton added moments where the Mossad agents discussed/remembered those they’d lost. The film shows the bittersweet pain of everyday life after such a devastating event, and Finale doesn’t wrap things up in a bow. There may be a happy ending in that Eichmann got the justice he deserved, but that’s small comfort to millions of people who lost so very many. Finale’s message may be that while there was justice – and even satisfaction – in the trials and execution of Nazi war criminals, the individuals who survived the devastation of the Holocaust would never truly be made whole.
#Protip: Why did Ben Kingsley delve into the mind of evil to portray Adolf Eichmann? Because Kingsley wanted to “nail [him] to the gates of Auschwitz”.