There’s a certain kind of true-life thriller that benefits from being made in a rough-around-the-edges way. “Operation Finale” is one of those films. It’s a drama about how Israeli agents from the Mossad and Shin Bet, in 1960, learned where Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi war criminal, had disappeared to — Argentina — and went on a hunt to capture him. They extracted him from a suburb of Buenos Aires, where he was hiding in plain sight, and brought him to Israel, where he stood trial for war crimes in the famous 1961 courtroom marathon that was more than just the trial of one man. In many ways, it dragged the full awareness of Nazi atrocities onto the world stage for the first time.
The last thing you want a movie like this one to feel like is a slick Hollywood suspense drama with famous historical names plugged in. “Operation Finale” doesn’t feel like that, yet taken on its own here’s how it really happened terms, the movie is at once plausible and sketchy, intriguing and not fully satisfying. Steven Spielberg set the gold standard for existential Mossad manhunt drama with “Munich,” where the action was heightened by a piercing sting of reality. “Operation Finale,” directed by Chris Weitz from a script by Matthew Orton, is like a patchy TV-movie version of “Munich.” There are moments of fascination, but it’s hard to separate the catch-as-catch-can aspect of the Mossad’s hunting down of Eichmann from the scattershot quality of the movie itself.
Oscar Isaac, earnest in a flashing-dark-eyed way, stars as Peter Malkin, an agent who was central to the mission. As the movie portrays it, the Mossad, by 1960, had lost its passion for tracking down escaped Nazis — the organization had matters to deal with it considered far more relevant to Israeli security. But when a tip arrives from a refugee (Haley Lu Richardson) who has made a liaison with Eichmann’s adult son, the target proves too big a fish to ignore.
Malkin joins a team that includes Mélanie Laurent as his ex-flame (their lingering spark is a rote commercial touch), and it’s not long before the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, shows up to give the agents his cosmic historical blessing. How will they get close to Eichmann? The movie does a good job of coloring in the anti-Semitic right-wing culture of Argentina that made it a sanctuary for Nazis in hiding. Malkin and his comrades have to violate the country’s sovereignty — and skirt the officials who are protecting Eichmann — in order to get their hands on him.
Eichmann, who was then in his mid-50s, is played by Ben Kingsley, with a sharp manner and paranoid intelligence that belies the character’s shabby dull surface. From the outside, he looks supremely vulnerable: a wizened figure working as a factory foreman, living with his wife and children in a dingy apartment that sits in the middle of a field like a giant cinderblock. Yet Eichmann, the former SS officer and Nazi head of transport, didn’t escape capture at the end of WWII by accident; he’s cagy — a beast of survival. Peter finally grabs him when he steps off the factory shuttle bus, and Isaac makes the character, for all his espionage training, seem touchingly out of his depth.
The question becomes: How to smuggle Eichmann out of the country? It’s here that the movie turns sodden and “philosophical,” and less than convincing. Eichmann is taken to a safe house, where the team spends days convincing him to sign a document to agree to stand trial in Jerusalem — all because El Al, the Israeli airline, requires the signature in order to cooperate. But why would that be? Couldn’t David Ben-Gurion just make a phone call? The movie never explains this peculiar glitch, so it plays as a dramatic excuse for the team members, especially Peter, to get to know their prey.
Kingsley, you can tell, is itching to portray Eichmann as an inwardly seething and all-too-human monster, yet the character, as Orton has written it, remains a coldly manipulative cipher. That’s supposed to be the point, but it relies too much on the standard mythology of who Adolf Eichmann was. For years, like many, I took Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” on the level — as a telling dissection of what she famously invoked to be “the banality of evil.” I was never moved to question her thesis until I saw the 2000 documentary “The Specialist,” which whittled hundreds of hours of footage of Eichmann’s 1961 war-crimes trial down to two chilling hours. The movie gave you the fascinating chance to observe Eichmann as he sat in his bulletproof glass cage and answered questions about the era of Nazi horror he was one of the prime architects of.
Looking quizzically hawkish, like a blander Arthur Miller, Eichmann was, of course, dry and detached. His statements were confounding and frustrating and even a bit tedious. They were all — famously — about what he didn’t know, what he didn’t plan, what he couldn’t have seen. His affect was flat, his temperament emotionless. In a way, he synched up exactly with Hannah Arendt’s description of him as a bureaucrat of evil, a cog in a much bigger death machine, an organizer who barely had any connection to what he was organizing.
But he was all those things only if you believed the surface he scrupulously presented. What became increasingly clear is that Eichmann’s owlish anonymity, his blank absence of any connection to his crimes, was a strategy, a tactic — an elaborate con job. After sixteen years, he wasn’t about to sit in a courtroom at the center of Israel and say, as if this was the climax of a bad Hollywood movie, “Yes, I knew just what I was doing when I helped to plan the murder of millions! And I was fine with it!” He was going to deny it all, because denial of the crime was his defense, and also because it was part of his unspeakable quality. The upshot of what Eichmann presented in that courtroom wasn’t “the banality of evil.” The meaning of his testimony was: I will admit nothing to you people, because I still don’t think you’re human, and I don’t think I did anything wrong.
Chris Weitz doesn’t exactly seem a likely filmmaker for this subject (his last two major movies were “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “The Golden Compass”). But he has enough technique to get by, especially in the down-to-the-wire climax, which involves drugging Eichmann and dressing him in an Israeli uniform to sneak him out the country under the watchful gaze of Argentine officials. (And will that plane take off?) But the film is hobbled by a vision of Adolf Eichmann that doesn’t find a way to touch his interior life so much as it preserves his mystique as an office manager in evil wolf’s clothing.