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'Operation Finale' review: Holocaust thriller never fully meshes

Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann in "Operation

Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann in "Operation Finale." Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

PLOT In 1960, an Israeli task force attempts to extract Adolf Eichmann from Argentina.

CAST Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent

RATED PG-13 (brutality and adult themes)


BOTTOM LINE A compelling if somewhat low-key historical thriller, elevated by fine performances from Kingsley and Isaac.

“Whom did we take from you, Peter?” Adolf Eichmann asks his Jewish captor, Peter Malkin, in “Operation Finale,” a historical thriller about the Israeli team that extracted the top Nazi from Argentina to stand trial in Israel. Coming from the great Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, the question swirls with meaning — an admission of guilt, a glimmer of humanity, perhaps a psychological ploy. And thanks to a very good Oscar Isaac as the grieving intelligence agent Malkin, the words land like a physical blow.

It’s one of the better moments in a movie that boasts a compelling story with several fine performances and an elegantly written script by Matthew Orton (not to mention Alexandre Desplat’s stylish score). For all that, though, “Operation Finale” somehow doesn’t fully deliver. Directed by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”), the movie splits its time between cloak-and-dagger entertainment — “Argo”-style — and the somber tone we expect from a drama about the Holocaust. Each approach seems right, yet together they tend to cancel each other out. Our pulses never really pound, while the thematically meatier moments aren’t as impactful as they could be.

That’s not to say “Operation Finale” isn’t well made and often engaging. The extraction plan itself — slightly fictionalized here — is impressive in its boldness. Step one: Cull information from a Jewish girl, Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson), who is ironically dating Eichmann’s son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn). Next, pounce on Adolf as he walks home from his job at a Mercedes factory. Finally, drug him up, dress him in an El Al uniform to look like a drunken steward — yes, really — and fly him home to justice. During the 10-day wait for that flight, the agents worry that Malkin and Eichmann are getting to know each other a little too well.

“Operation Finale” faces the tough task of respecting the facts while juicing up the kind of drama we require from a movie. An Israeli doctor named Hanna (Melanie Laurent) serves as Peter’s love interest, but she’s a fictional character and we can tell. More importantly, Eichmann, in his safe-house scenes, wavers between soulless bureaucrat (the “banality of evil,” in Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation) and venomous snake. Even if true, the combination feels uneven and not fully convincing.

Still, “Operation Finale” serves as a reminder of why Eichmann’s trial, broadcast worldwide with eyewitness testimony from Holocaust survivors, was so important. Shortly before Eichmann’s capture, one of his Argentine admirers notes that a comeback could be in the works. “The government is teetering,” he says. “So we can come out of the shadows.”

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