Operation Finale (2018)

Directed by Chris Weitz

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Operation Finale announces itself as an important movie.  How does a movie do that?  Well I’m note sure, but this one does.  There is a long Mission Impossible-ish opening credit sequence, a pretty great cast of actors, loads of music cues, the Nazis, a fall release and all the things you typically associate with movies trying to win Academy Awards.

This is a movie that might’ve won Best Picture five or more years ago, following the example of 2013 best winner Argo.  There is also more than a little of Steven Spielberg’s Munich to this film, but that movie dares to go places this one stays away from like a conservative politician dodging questions about the President.

I enjoyed Operation Finale, but leaving the theater I was thinking more about what the movie didn’t do very well and the ways in which it could be fixed.  The movie is certainly well put together, has a series of great performances and does a good job heightening the tension at the right moments and balancing a series of separate storylines.  At the end of the day, though, it just feels like a neat machine-made movie, like if Siri assembled the script.

It’s all fine, is I guess what I’m saying, but this story has so much more to offer than “fine.”  It’s the story of a group of Israeli spies who take down SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the final solution.  In 1960 he lives in Buenos Aires, and the group of spies must covertly take him back to Israel to stand trial for his crimes.

Their mission, should they choose to accept it (they do), is to capture Eichmann and bring him halfway across the world without being harmed.  The obvious challenge, first, is that it’s hard to kidnap someone without anyone knowing, and second, the people who are assigned to capture him surely want this man dead for what he’s done.

The leader of this group of spies is Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac).  We meet him in an early scene that establishes his moral authority.  He’s tasked with finding former Nazis, but he doesn’t take any joy in the job or in the death of one of these Nazis.  After a couple of minutes onscreen we know that Malkin is faithful to the job, not to his own emotions.

He and his team will capture Eichmann before the movie’s midpoint.  Much of the second act has to do with them keeping a low profile and pushing Eichmann to sign a document before they will be allowed to remove him from the country.  It’s not what you expect for this spy thriller, but it is nonetheless tense and exciting.

The plot of the movie is well put together, but I think where it falters is in theme.  What is this movie really about?  That may seem obvious, but to me the story was just a little flat.  It hit all the familiar emotional, important beats, and we’re left with a pretty solid little thriller, but this should be more than just a studio movie.  It’s about the man who put together the plan that executed millions of people.

He is the villain, of course, and Malkin is the hero, but there is a brief section in the middle of the story in which the film approaches some of the nuance between them.  The main question for Malkin is really how far he’s willing to go to get what he wants, and the main question for Eichmann is whether or not he should have to pay for the crimes of an entire government.

It’s a compelling question, at least I think so, and it suggests that the greater problem wasn’t Eichmann himself or Hitler or any single person but rather the complicity and line of thinking of so many people that allowed this to happen.  It’s something discussed in the documentary Shoah which I wrote about not too long ago.

It’s also a little too nuanced for Operation Finale to tackle.  This isn’t a movie that raises questions but instead answers what few we have.  Malkin and Eichmann begin as the obvious hero and villain, and the movie wants to keep it that way.  The story is at its best when they are sitting in a room discussing what happened.  We know each has a reason for their line of thinking (Malkin wants Eichmann to effectively sign a confession, Eichmann doesn’t want to sign), and this offers one more reason to doubt what each person says.  That means we regard their conversation critically.

Malkin will appeal to Eichmann’s humanity to get his signature.  It’s the one course of action the others refuse to do.  They prefer to let him rot, starve and go crazy until he signs out of desperation, but not Malkin.  See, he has the moral authority here, BUT I’d say that with such moral authority and apparent appreciation for the gray area within all of us, Malkin would seem to be more affected by Eichmann’s charms.

That‘s the interesting part of the story, whether a man who organized the slaughter of millions of people could somehow convince his captor that he isn’t as responsible as his captor thinks.  Most on the team of spies have no room for doubt because without absolute conviction they surely couldn’t perform their job at the highest level.  But for Malkin, allowing room for Eichmann’s humanity (in order to get the signature) means making himself just a little more vulnerable, meaning there is room for doubt to creep in.

At one point in the story, another of the spies accuses Malkin of sabotaging the mission by becoming friendly with Eichmann, and a doctor on the team, Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), tells Malkin not to believe what Eichmann’s saying.  This sets up that Malkin is indeed falling victim to Eichmann’s rhetoric, but when Malkin (spoiler alert) gets Eichmann’s signature, he’s back to normal.  So it was all an act, but that means there was no depth to Malkin’s supposed character arc, he’s just great at his f*ckin’ job, and no one believed in him.

Ok, so that’s an arc I guess.  Malkin is great at his job, but others doubt him.  If there’s a totem pole of Israeli spies, he’s on the bottom of it, and in his attempt to get Eichmann’s signature he hopes to prove himself worthy, maybe?  But he is put in charge of this team, which is no small appointment, so any doubt others have against him is probably more of a projection of his own self-doubts.  And yet, he never expresses those self-doubts, so this is giving the movie too much credit, Malkin just doesn’t have an arc other than to do his job well.

The most frustrating thing about Operation Finale is that it could be so much better, I believe.  It’s tense and exciting and well-assembled at certain moments, but I can’t help but compare this movies that I think did this type of story much better, specifically Spielberg’s Munich (2005) and Bridge of Spies (2015).

So I guess what I’m saying is that Steven Spielberg should’ve directed this movie, or the studio that did should’ve layered in some subtext about what was sacrificed to make this mission happen.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the Argo ending, you know, where they’re racing to board the plane before the bad guys catch up.  It’s very contrived, the type of thing you can be pretty damn sure didn’t all happen at once, with the Nazis literally at the airport gate yelling at them to stop the plane before it takes off.

To ramp up that ‘will they/won’t they make it’ tension, the Nazis put pressure on local police to prevent the plane from taking off.  The police guy calls his man on the ground, at the airport, to do whatever it takes to stop the plane from taking off.  What does he do?  Well he quietly steals the plane’s landing permit, and when the controller in the tower can’t find it, he tells the plane to stay put.

Our heroes start flipping out, but good news, they do have a landing permit.  The problem is that one of them must sacrifice himself to deliver the permit to the tower so the plane can take off.  Malkin volunteers, and everyone looks at him as if he’s truly sacrificing himself for this mission.  He goes anyway, delivers the permit to the controllers, and they say the plane can now take off… in fifteen minutes.

What does Malkin do?  Well he sees the angry Nazis at the gate, and he tells the controller to have the plane tack off now, so he listens, apparently causally violating some part of his job.

So poor Malkin, left behind, sure to be torn apart by the Nazis, right?  No he’s fine, just catches the next flight, presumably, to Israel because next we see him he’s just hanging out at Eichmann’s trial.  So what exactly did he sacrifice?  A 12 hour layover?

It’s more and more frustrating the more I think about it because it’s so narratively pointless and just tries to ramp up the tension to make the movie more entertaining, but that attempt to make it more entertaining seems to admit that the movie isn’t making enough lemonade from these lemons.

I’m all over the place right now because I’m still not sure where to start or end with this movie.  The most interesting scenes involve a young woman, Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), living in Buenos Aires with her blind grandfather.  She meets and falls for a young man, Klaus (Joe Alwyn), only to learn that his father is the infamous Adolf Eichmann and that she herself is Jewish.  Well sh*t that’s a story, but the movie breezes right through it so we can get to Oscar Isaac and company, which, I love Oscar Isaac, but let’s not rush through what should really be the meat of the story.

It’s Sylvia who takes on the most risk at times, entering alone into the Eichmann home to help gather intelligence on the man to see if he truly is the Adolf Eichmann.  Those scenes between her and the always impressive Ben Kingsley are absolutely chilling, but the movie barely gives them any time to breathe.

So Operation Finale is just a passable movie, fine and dandy and interesting for the true story it claims to depict but underwhelming because that true story is reduced to another carbon copy action movie script.  We never explore who these characters really are and instead reduce them to the simplicities of absolute heroes and absolute villains.  What did you learn about Malkin other than that he lost family in the Holocaust?  What did you learn about Eichmann other than that he was a monster?

What the documentary Shoah partially explores is whether the people who helped make the Holocaust happen feel they are at fault.  Most don’t, or they just try very hard to deflect blame.  They would say they were part of a machine, and all they did was rearrange numbers and that was that.  It was someone else who was truly at fault.

When Eichmann makes such a claim it is compelling because we don’t know first whether or not this is what he really believes and second, whether or not he’s right.  That isn’t to say he’s blameless, I mean he should sure as f*ck be tried as he was, but was Eichmann any more evil than the rest of the government he had come to symbolize?  In other words, were Eichmann killed during the war, wouldn’t someone else have just taken his place?

Again, that‘s what the film doesn’t really care for.  Eichmann, being played by Kingsley, has an odd charisma which we are meant to believe Malkin has fallen for and which we too might be interested in, but near the end he suddenly loses his temper in a completely unmotivated character moment that I must assume was only there to remind the audience that yes, this man was truly evil.  In that moment he becomes Hitler himself, the person we want to see taken down.  And sure, that’s a much easier viewing experience, to have the bad guy be very much bad and to have the good guys very much win, but I think it ignores something deeper about people, about us, about revenge and humanity and grief.

Munich, to mention it yet again, follows a similar type of revenge mission, but the Eric Bana-led team must actively grapple with how far they are willing to go to complete their mission.  This means endangering the lives of others, and by the end of the film Bana is a shell of himself, all in the name of serving the greater good.  He truly sacrifices something as part of the mission, and Peter Malkin in this film receives no such character arc.  He’s a hero at the beginning, and he’s a hero at the end.

Up Next: BlacKkKlansman (2018), Fletch (1985), Support the Girls (2018)

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