Operation Finale Review

The end of summer usually finds movie theaters mopping up the dredges of the big blockbusters; maybe you catch a few horror movies or the last weeks of an extended-run comedy. September means kids are back in school, weekends are still hot enough for the pool, and the crisp fall of Oscar season is not-quite-there-yet. Said otherwise: September movies are generally forgettable.

So, imagine my excitement and surprise when a real capital-G Good Movie debuted in the September slump: Operation Finale. The true story behind this movie was made for Hollywood: a group of Israeli Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) stumbles onto the location of Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), the high-ranking Nazi leader known as the "Architect of the Final Solution." ("Nazis love nicknames," Eichmann quips.) Eichmann has, like many Nazis, fled from Germany to Argentina, where he's assumed a new name and masquerades as — get this — a Jew who works at the local Mercedes Benz plant.

The Jewish Mossad agents (including The League's Nick Kroll and Inglorious Basterd's Mélanie "Shoshanna!" Laurent) descend on Buenos Aires, where they plot to kidnap Eichmann and return him to Israel to stand trial for the crimes of the Holocaust. (You'll recall that Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels all took their own lives before they could be tried.) The result is Argo meets Inglorious Basterds. Sure, there are moments we've all seen before  a cute spy montage of messages wrapped in newspapers at cafes; a nail-biting scene on a grounded airplane while the enemies are at the gate but the net result is powerful, fascinating, and important.

Oscar Isaac is excellent as always (he's made great career selections, hasn't he?), but when Ben Kinsley's in a room, it belongs to Ben Kinsley. Kingsley finds surprising depth and charm to Eichmann; he is frustratingly likeable, even while he remains unapologetically hateable. He is Hannibal Lecter; he is Hans Landa. He is, I should say, someone fundamentally evil, hate-filled, and vile, who also loves his family, trusts his values, and doesn't believe that he's done anything wrong,

Addressing Kinsley's unsettling charm, A.O. Scott wrote for the NY Times that "[b]ut of course the people responsible for great evil do not cease to be human, and thus to provoke ordinary human responses, including laughter and empathy." He makes jokes, he makes polite inquiries, he is cooperative and even kind. But he is also terrifying, and perhaps all the more so for his humanity. After all: one human did this to another.

It's easy criticism to say that this story has been seen before; Operation Finale is not breaking new ground with style or substance. But, after a year that proved we still troop to the theaters to watch WWII movies, it's important to remember what we started a war over. In an age of rising right-wing nationalism, it seems urgent and important to remember the atrocities of recent history. In a world where an increasing number of people doubt the Holocaust actually occurred, a film about the genocide's paper trail is relevant anew.

When I left the movie last night, I couldn't stop thinking about the haunting scene in Cabaret where a rosy-cheeked Hitler youth leads a German biergarten in a patriotic song that ends in feverish Nazi salutes. So, I rewatched Cabaret last night. Cabaret, of course, takes place in 1931 Berlin where Nazis are a fringe but growing political force who are already turning violent. Progressive Germans, alive and safe in the anything-goes clubs of Weimar's Berlin, ignore the threat  surely these niche nationalists can't really take over the country? Their flippant dismissals of Nazis, even while driving through Nazi carnage and fleeing a Nazi-run biergarten, is disturbing dramatic irony.

Cabaret was released in 1972*, a decade after the events described in Operation Finale occurred. This means everyone who saw Cabaret in theaters would have Eichmann fresh on their minds. Against the backdrop of rising right-wing nationalism in our own time, it's resonant to bring this story out again. We need Operation Finale's reminder of how it ended for the same reason we need Cabaret's reminder of how it started: lest we forget.


*Trivia: Cabaret lost Best Picture to The Godfather that year, but won almost every other major category, including Best Director for Bob Fosse — over Francis Ford Coppola — and Best Supporting Actor for Joel Gray over James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino, all of whom were nominated for their roles in The Godfather. To date, Cabaret remains the film awarded the most Oscars without winning Best Picture.
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