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The Final Solution

Oscar Isaac
Oscar Isaac
 122 Minutes
Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley  
Operation Finale

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but, unfortunately for the creators of the new film, Operation Finale, it’s not always as dramatic as fiction. The story of the capture of Adolph Eichmann, the so-called “architect of the Final Solution” and the highest-ranking Nazi official ever brought to justice after the Nuremberg trials is an amazing example of first-rate intelligence gathering and processing, followed by a nearly perfectly executed kidnapping and extraction performed by a highly trained team. None of that, however, translates into the type of compelling, Mission Impossible-style espionage thriller audiences seem to want today. As a result, director Chris Weitz has to scramble his plot and tonal elements to assemble a somewhat more exciting albeit fictionalized version of the tale, and the end result never quite works.


In Operation Finale, as in real life, Eichmann (played by Ben Kingsley), who was primarily responsible for executing the logistics of the Nazis’ assembly-line process for sending six million Jews to their deaths at concentration camps, escaped to Argentina after World War II and lived with his family under an assumed name. His teenage son, who actually went by his real name, Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) begins dating Sylvia Herman (Haley Lu Richardson), unaware that she is half-Jewish. After Klaus takes Sylvia to a neo-Nazi rally, the girl is appalled and breaks up with him, and her father (Peter Strauss) reports his suspicions of Eichmann’s true identity to Israeli intelligence.


Eventually, the Prime Minister of Israel authorizes sending a team to Buenos Aires. There, they confirm Eichmann’s identity, and overpower him and take him to a safe house awaiting the arrival of an El Al jet to take them back to Israel. El Al did not fly to Buenos Aires at that time, but the Israeli government arranged a cover story that the jet was there as part of a celebration of Argentina’s 150th anniversary.


The abduction goes fairly smoothly, although Eichmann’s family soon suspects foul play and reports the kidnapping to the local police, many of whom are Nazi sympathizers. They begin an aggressive search for the missing Nazi, employing various strong-arm tactics. In the meantime, the Israeli agents must wait, because El Al refuses to take Eichmann unless he signs a document, stating that he is returning to Israel for trial willingly. Although various Israeli agents take turns interrogating Eichmann, one in particular, Peter Malkin (Oscar Issac), who lost a sister and other family members in the Holocaust, establishes the better rapport.


Operation Finale was inspired in part by Peter Malkin’s memoirs, so it’s natural that he would emphasize his role in the abduction. However, the reality of the entire affair is far more prosaic, than what the film describes. The Hermans informed Israeli intelligence of their suspicions about Eichmann three years before the kidnapping. There was no well-coordinated search by the Argentinian police for the kidnappers. And, most tellingly, El Al did not demand a written letter from Eichmann (although he did eventually provide one as a way of explaining his actions). Actually, the reason for the delay was to enable the agents in Argentina to capture a second target, Joseph Mengele, a mission that they eventually dropped as unfeasible.


While Operation Finale is far from the first movie to fudge the facts to generate more suspense, the filmmakers do their audience a grave disservice here. Unlike most of his infamous contemporaries, Eichmann kept a fairly low profile during World War II, and his stock defense (he repeats the same lines on several occasions in the movie), was that he was only following orders, not participating in the actual killings, but merely doing what a good soldier would to help his country’s war effort. This is the same defense he put forward at his trial, and at least some who reported on the trial believed it to some degree. But, as the movie points out, this was merely Eichmann’s efforts at manipulation, beginning from the second he realized that his cover identity had been blown.


As in real life, Operation Finale spends much of its runtime with Eichmann and his captors in the safe house. While it’s impossible to know just how dramatic life actually was in the safe house, screenwriter Matthew Orton (who has no previous film credits) tries to jazz the story up with conventional screenplay complications. In addition to the ticking clock scenario, periodically switching to the point of view of the pro-Nazi Argentine police eventually catching a maid who helped cook and clean at the safe house and brutally interrogating her, Orton creates conflict between Malkin’s interrogation methods and those of the more experienced interrogators.


The events portrayed either didn’t occur or are overemphasized in the film. The most egregious detour the film makes is to show repeated flashbacks of Peter Malkin’s sister, who was executed during the war, contrasting those with other flashbacks of Eichmann presiding over a mass execution. Malkin (and, indeed, most of the others who participated in Eichmann’s capture) did lose relatives in the Holocaust, but the script’s continuing emphasis on the flashbacks ironically makes the film drag on even more. What should have been a drama focused on the nature of Eichmann’s personality instead becomes a time-consuming slog of sorts.


The movie’s saving grace is Ben Kingsley’s performance as Eichmann. Kingsley excels at portraying evil (and, ironically, truly saintly characters as well), and he is in fine form here (in a better-written movie, he might have snagged an Oscar nomination). As played by Kingsley, Eichmann is a true psychopath, but, unlike the rabid thugs at the neo-Nazi rally that understandably repulses Sylvia Herman early in the film, one who is expert at deception and manipulation. Although he never convinces his captors of his version of events in what becomes a dry run for his trial, he does have them playing his game for much of his captivity. It’s only in one chilling, final scene that the true, rabid nature of his hateful personality comes out.


While Eichmann liked to portray himself as a professional engineer doing his part, the true professionals were the team that smoothly captured and removed him from Argentina. The true story, however, was Eichmann’s personality and psychology that made him an enthusiastic participant in the depravity. As was Eichmann’s trial, Operation Finale again brings that depravity forward to a new generation of filmgoers, but in a version that too often puts conventional (and fictitious) espionage suspense ahead of actual relevance. The film offers just enough genuine substance to make it worthwhile but misses out on a chance to properly illuminate the truly important. Adolph Eichmann’s capture and trial deserved a better finale.

In this clip, Ben Kingsley admits he is really Adolph Eichmann.

Read other reviews of Operation Finale: 

Operation Finale (2018) on IMDb