Operation Finale knows the story it wants to tell, but little else beyond that. The story part is made pretty easy since it is based on real events and real people. Where the film truly struggles is trying to keep a consistent tone. Among the many different voices battling over control of Operation Finale, the three loudest would see this film as some kind of heist/historical drama/comedy hybrid. Done carefully, this amalgam creature could easily be successful, but this operation was mostly a failure.
The origin of the film is where the historical drama comes into effect. Over a decade after World War II, the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) gets a report that one of the top men in Hitler’s regime long thought to be dead was, in fact, alive and well in Argentina. Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) is living under an assumed identity, and it is up to Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and his to team to find him and secretly extract from a country that is controlled from the shadows by Nazi sympathizers. The screenplay marks the debut of writer Matthew Orton, who decided to singularly focus on the capture and extraction of Eichmann, rather than complicate the story further by introducing that Auschwitz mass murderer Josef Mengele was also in Argentina. The real story has both of these respective Nazi leaders in Argentina at the same time, but the film decided to completely omit Mengele since he ended up evading them. This must be where the “based on a true story” part saves the day.
For better or worse, Orton crafts the story around Peter Malkin, leaving every other character to remain rudimentary in their development. This is likely a symptom of Orton using Malkin’s novel, “Eichmann in My Hands” as the main source of information. Although the vague, personal motivations for every other person involved in this operation are briefly mentioned, Malkin’s rings clearest with its complexity and depth. The rest of the film comes off as a shallow copy of many films in this genre, but the attention placed on Malkin makes the interaction between him and Eichmann the most emotionally palpable in the entire film. You can see all of the psychology and manipulation within their interactions. The strings being pulled almost take a tangible physical form as we are drawn into this tug of war mind game. Their scenes together show a skillful hand and attention to detail that the rest of the film was desperately lacking in.
The heist element comes into play as the covert Israeli team prepares to abduct and extradite Eichmann. Not quite Ocean’s Eleven-style, but a fair echo to it with the setup, planning process, and even comedic elements. Since the film’s tone fluctuates more than the stock market, it is hard to tell whether the comedy in the film is intentional or if it’s just a side effect of putting two naturally funny actors like Oscar Isaac and Nick Kroll together. Either way, the humor sprinkled throughout, although tonally confusing, brings needed levity to otherwise dark scenes and flashbacks.
This was always going to have a serious toned inlaid throughout the film based on the subject matter alone, but director Chris Weitz’s mistake came from not creating a cohesive tone that complemented the story. This film could have taken many forms ranging from your stuffy, run-of-the-mill historical biographical drama to a gritty, irreverent Tarantino-esque war film. Even a heist film with an upbeat jazz score would have worked in its own respects, but this combination of tones pulled the film in so many opposing directions that it ended up tearing itself apart. Individually, each of these elements provides great singular parts in the film, but together, and without a story to support them, come off as disjointed and hard to enjoy as a whole.
The characters may mostly be hollow husks, but the lead performances are what truly give the film the much-needed intensity that should have been present throughout. Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley each, respectively, give fantastic performances. It’s no surprise since the majority of the film forsakes every other character in support of the development of Malkin and Eichmann. While their individual performances are strong, the scenes where they interact together are electric. Even without speaking, each actor’s nuanced performance can be read through their expressions and mannerism. There’s an art to giving a performance within a performance, having the character also acting, but still allowing us to see their unspoken vulnerability, and Isaac and Kingsley could teach a masterclass just based on these characters.