Operation Finale: Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley’s mental chess games excite despite the tepid treatment of this fascinating true story

The arresting opening shot of Operation Finale places Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, the famed Jewish secret agent from the Mossad, squarely in the frame, his stern resolute juxtaposed by the heavy juddering of the car as it travels down a rutted, winding road. It suggests Malkin’s unsettled inner turmoil in a post-Holocaust world and sets the audience up for a wild ride that the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to. In spite of his painful past, which is gradually revealed through director Chris Weitz’s moving use of flashback, Malkin is a sardonic, cocksure spy brimming with confidence that he can pull off the difficult mission of capturing the infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the final solution.” These are character qualities in Isaac’s wheelhouse and he pulls them off well. Weitz’s historical drama takes place in 1960, shortly after Eichmann’s hidden whereabouts were discovered by a crafty teenage girl in Argentina who developed a crush on his son Klaus, played with chilling charm by Joe Alwyn. Weitz deftly builds the pulse-pounding tension as the band of agents dodge twists of fate that threaten to bungle their operation to catch Eichmann.

The spies smuggle Eichmann to a house where they must get him to sign an agreement to stand trial in Tel Aviv before the very people he so inhumanely annihilated. Threats and badgering does not seem to work on the sly and cunning Eichmann whose persnickety mannerisms, shy fumbling, and smarmy grin conceals an insidious maliciousness. Ben Kinglsey masterfully commands the banality of his evil with disturbing effect. Malkin tries his hand at convincing the warlord to sign with different tactics: trading banter, empathizing with him as a father and husband, openly listening to his point of view, or exposing his own vulnerabilities. Malkin’s tête-à-tête with Eichmann is the highlight of Operation Finale, a mesmeric, seesawing psychological tango between two men with polarized viewpoints of the same tragedy. Malkin bares his soul and reveals the painful reminisces of those he lost in the Holocaust, memories Eichmann callously uses to push the self-assured spy to his emotional breaking point. Although their cerebral volleying is gripping, Weitz still leaves you wanting more. At times the mounting friction between the pair is undermined or quickly extinguished by moving onto the next moment or scene, and this feels like a huge waste with such extraordinary talent. Nevertheless, Isaac and Kingsley are at the height of their game and it is a joy to see some of the greatest actors of this generation go head to head.

There is also some shoe-horned humor in the intelligent agents’ repartee, as if the filmmakers were afraid the grim subject matter would be too much to bear and they needed to pepper in some comic moments to cool off the heat. It’s hard to laugh at these in-jokes about the characters’ behaviors and idiosyncrasies when there hasn’t been much time to get to know them. Yet this never undermines our investment in the mission, and their final step to bring Eichmann to the airport crackles with white-knuckle anticipation, punctuated by Alexandre Desplat’s stylish score.

Although ultimately undermined by the script’s broad and generic strokes, Operation Finale attempts to tackle large questions about prejudice, revenge, and an individual’s complicity in racial injustices. Such themes are all too pertinent in this current sociopolitical climate. The scene where Klaus takes Sylvia to a Nazi meeting filled with red-faced, bulging-veined men bellowing their desire to turn innocent people into soap is a petrifying glimpse into ideologies that, even sixty years later, still course through the world’s veins.

Operation Finale doesn’t reach the Spielbergian heights of Munich or the cat-and-mouse thrills of Catch Me if You Can, but the sparring between Kingsley and Isaac is remarkable, and the film’s structural flaws never blunt the the touching impact of its themes. The notorious quote “The hand that holds the pen writes history” rings throughout the film. Despite its heavy-handedness, Operation Finale is a poignant story of Jewish men and women seeking some form of justice for what has been cruelly stolen from them and done to their ancestors. It was time they write their own ending.

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