As the Allies marched toward Berlin in the spring of 1945 and it became all too clear that the Third Reich would topple, Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler all committed suicide rather than be taken alive. Adolf Eichmann did not. The cold-blooded architect of the Final Solution fled with his family to Argentina. His capture would have to wait almost 15 years. The tale of his top secret kidnapping by a team of Israeli intelligence agents and their daring mission to whisk him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes is the true story that drives Chris Weitz’s stirring Operation Finale.
In Steven Spielberg’s Munich and even Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, there was something deeply and undeniably satisfying in watching Jewish soldiers and operatives avenging the horrors of their persecution. Operation Finale taps into the same primal rush of retribution. Weitz and writer Matthew Orton have done well by this chapter of modern Jewish history, even if they occasionally steer too hard into melodramatic Hollywood espionage thriller clichés. Still, the reason the movie works as well as it does is its two stars: Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley.
Isaac — whose salt-and-pepper hair and loose, cocksure charisma call to mind a young George Clooney — plays Peter Malkin, whose beloved older sister and her young children were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And you get the sense that his day job working for the Mossad is more than just the noble calling of a young Israeli protecting his new nation. It’s his way of reckoning with survivor’s guilt. Kingsley, an actor who has made a career out of plumbing the extremes of righteousness (Gandhi) and malevolence (Sexy Beast), plays Eichmann, a ruthlessly efficient coward in hiding half a world away from his beloved fatherland. With his fastidious manners, balding comb-over, and self-satisfied grin, it’s easy to see what historian Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann and his heinous deeds.
The white-knuckle mission to capture and extract Eichmann is the centerpiece of Operation Finale. And it unspools in predictably unpredictable spy-movie fashion. Everything that can go wrong does; each escape is narrower and hairier than the one that preceded it. But it’s the psychological duel between the terrific Isaac and Kingsley as captor and prisoner that delivers the film’s most charged jolts of electricity. If you needed any further proof that Isaac is a bona fide movie star, you’ll find it here. And if you required any additional proof that Kingsley has the ability to curdle your blood and freeze your veins like no other actor, well, you clearly haven’t been watching enough Ben Kingsley movies. Don’t worry, though, you can start with this one. B+