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MOVIES: Operation Finale - Review

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Ben Kingsley played a pivotal role in Steven Spielberg's haunting Holocaust drama Schindler's List, and as that film prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the veteran thespian turns in a chilling performance from the other side of the conflict in Operation Finale. Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in Hitler's inner circle that not only managed to evade capture in the aftermath of World War II, but spent the next 15 years in hiding before finally resurfacing in Buenos Aires.

When news of Eichmann's whereabouts first reaches the Mossad, the agency is reluctant to take action: there have been many false tips over the years, including one that led Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and his team to assassinate the wrong person, which the audience experiences during one of the film's early scenes. That the dead officer at their feet still happens to be a Nazi is of small comfort to Malkin, but fellow agent Moshe Tabor (Greg Hill) is less troubled by the mistake, justifying the act with a shrug: "He was on someone's list."

This time around, great care is taken to confirm Eichmann's location and identity, because this won't be another assassination attempt: Malkin's team has been ordered to capture Eichmann and bring him back to Israel to stand trial for his crimes against the Jewish people. Argentina's refusal to extradite necessitates the concoction of an elaborate plan that will see the agents allying themselves with a commercial airline to smuggle Eichmann out of the country, but everything falls apart when the airline demands a signed statement from Eichmann himself, granting permission to be transported to Israel.

The white-knuckled suspense of the kidnapping, which plays out along a remote stretch of road in the Argentinian countryside, pales in comparison to the tension that mounts in the film's second half as Malkin and Eichmann engage in a psychological game of cat and mouse. Matthew Orton's screenplay chooses not to paint Eichmann solely as a monster who orchestrated the Final Solution, instead offering a glimpse at his humanity as the aging military man frets over what will become of his wife and children after his capture. This decision, while perhaps feeling controversial on the surface, actually works to make Eichmann's actions even more unspeakable - it's one thing to view the Nazi regime as the embodiment of pure evil, but the realization that a kindly, soft-spoken man with a family of loved ones could order millions of people to their death is a whole new level of horrifying.

It should come as no surprise that Kingsley is brilliant here, with a restrained performance that attempts - and succeeds, more often than not - to humanize the most heinous of war criminals, while still offering an occasional glimpse of the menace lurking beneath the surface. Not to be outdone, Isaac matches him blow-for-blow in every pulse-pounding interaction, exhibiting a coolness that constantly struggles to control the rage that Malkin carries as he continues to grieve for his sister, brutally murdered by Nazi soldiers along with her children. Nothing would satisfy Malkin more than to avenge her death, but longtime friend and fellow operative Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll in a stellar dramatic turn) reminds him that the mission is bigger than his personal vendetta: "For the first time in history, we'll be able to judge our executioner."

Operation Finale's climax, while offering a fair amount of excitement and anxiety, feels as though it borrows a bit too heavily from Argo, a better film whose final moments are more engaging and more nerve-wracking. But the emotional payoff here feels more profound and a bit more satisfying, thanks in no small part to the excellent foundation laid by Isaac, Kingsley and the rest of the cast.

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