Careers are sometimes fun to track in Hollywood, especially when they don’t conform to any one subset or genre ad nauseam to the point that each and every project is just a carbon copy of the last á la Jean-Claude Van Damme or Katherine Heigl. And take for instance director Chris Weitz, who got his start doing the first American Pie movie and About a Boy, both with his brother Paul and both reasonably grounded projects for an up-and-comer. Then, flash-forward a few years and the younger Weitz gets tapped to helm the adaptation of the fantasy book series The Golden Compass, which many consider to be steeped in potential but largely bleh on the whole and rife with missed opportunities, failing to jumpstart a franchise. Next, all of a sudden, he’s jumping into a another franchise and directing the second installment in the Twilight Saga known as New Moon, something you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself putting your idiosyncratic, creative stamp on in favor of the corporate machine. Now seemingly done with blockbusters, he leads seasoned actor Demián Bichir to an Oscar nomination in the drama A Better Life in 2011, and now he’s back at it again this time with Ben Kingsley in the post-WWII historical thriller Operation Finale, not to be confused with the shoot-em-up comedy Operation: Endgame – mostly talking to myself. And while I don’t think this will similarly come up come awards season, nor does it firmly establish who Weitz is as a director, it is entertaining and intriguing enough factually to just get over the hump. It’s not nearly as heavy as its subject matter and thus comes off fairly slight, but for what it’s worth the relative efforts of those involved are well-intentioned and suitable enough to make this worthy of light viewing.
Set in 1960, Operation Finale begins with intelligence surfacing in Argentina on the status of Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a prominent nazi during World War II and alleged “architect” of the Final Solution. This comes from teenager and secret Jew Sylvia Herman (Haley Lu Richardson) after she begins dating Eichmann’s son Klaus (Joe Alwyn). Reaching the ears of the Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, a team of agents spearheaded by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent), and Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), is dispatched to the South American country to confirm the sighting and ultimately capture Eichmann before absconding with him back to Israel, where he is to stand trial for his crimes. However, the second half of that equation proves complicated, as diplomatic relations force the agents to remain in Argentina longer than expected, which only increases their chance of discovery by Eichmann’s suspicious son and followers. Now the agents – particularly Malkin, who bears a personal vendetta against Eichmann – must use psychological warfare to safely and securely extract their target and achieve justice.
Can history spoil a movie? Is it better to not know anything about such events else the cinematic treatment falter in edifying in the most entertaining way possible? Okay, that second question is a bit of a stretch, but the first one stands valid. While I’m not saying these stories shouldn’t be told even if they’re culturally well known – in fact it’s vital that they are – as far as a storytelling standpoint is concerned, yes, sometimes your knowledge of true events can alter your viewing experience. Such was the case for me watching last year’s Battle of the Sexes, which, though great filmmaking in its own right, did have a cloud hanging over it, one of general awareness that Billie Jean King did in fact best Bobby Riggs in the second installment of the “Battle of the Sexes” – especially considering that Hollywood likely wouldn’t be telling that story had she not. Still, that didn’t take away the impeccable acting done by Emma Stone and Steve Carell and the layered screenplay that almost made you want to root for both athletes. And a general inclination as to how Operation Finale will play out similarly doesn’t detract from the sheer intrigue generated by this tense and cathartic sliver of world history. Fortunately, the feature film treatment provided the audience with some thematic meat to chew on while they watch this somewhat underwhelming dramatization of something that is far and away more imposing and heavy. While it’s not totally sustainable all the way through, the last bite of it you’ll get will be cleansing enough to make it worthwhile.
Going back to Weitz, this may go down as something of a missed opportunity for him. You’ve got a fascinating real-life story that’s only been adapted to screen once in the 1996 TV film The Man Who Captured Eichmann, you’ve got a dynamite cast that includes Oscar winner Ben Kingsley and future Oscar winner – in my opinion – Oscar Isaac, and about $20 million to play around with from there. And yet the way it’s shot is relatively flat, far too polished and obvious to really suck you in to whatever’s going on at any particular moment. There was a scene toward the end of the film that evokes images to the Best Picture-winning Argo, whose deft, shaky-cam direction courtesy of Ben Affleck helped sell the visceral thrills and make the audience feel the dangers and question their own cursory knowledge of the story, make them believe that it could end on a down note, or that not everyone would make it out alive. Here, however, never is that barrier between the film and the viewer demolished, thus leaving a little something to be desired. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Weitz is incapable of rising to the occasion – as even the badness of the worst film I’ve seen of his, New Moon, stems from poor source material and drab characters – but he doesn’t do so here.
Structurally speaking, however, this is the kind of movie that lends itself very well to actors as well, as being able to step into the shoes of someone factual and notable lends credence to their versatility. Naturally, Kingsley would be thought of as being the main attraction here, his esteemed filmography of biographical dramas like Gandhi and Schindler’s List speaking for itself. While I would’ve liked for a less restrained approach – this is largely the film’s fault stylistically and structurally – he is very well and good, indeed. With this kind of role, I’d imagine it to be difficult for him not to be good. It’s not going to spark the kind of career resurgence or awards recognition that one would hope for, but it’ll leave a noteworthy footprint in his long list of accomplishments. Quality-wise, the same could be said for Oscar Isaac, who though capitalizing on what the script gave him could have done so much more given his talents. I’m of the disposition that he’s one of the finest working actors not to be nominated for an Academy Award, and that his snubbing for Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 delayed his inevitable career apotheosis by some years, but I’ll take him in a decent drama such as this as a suitable consolation. Also of consideration is Nick Kroll, who as a comedic actor I’d dismissed some years ago but now between this and his role in 2016’s Loving has been proving himself quite the dependable dramatic foil.
All in all, Operation Finale is a post-Holocaust film that could’ve used more suspense, and perhaps a better director, but is also difficult to dislike thanks to its thematic potency and well-intentioned approach. I’m not of the mindset that it’s particularly crucial to see in a theatre, but I’d recommending giving it a watch if it comes along on TNT or something in the near future on a lazy afternoon.
Final Score: 6/10