The perfume of prestige and the promise of white-knuckle thrills announce the arrival of “Operation Finale” before the movie has even begun. Two big stars — Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac — face off as fugitive Nazi Adolph Eichmann and Mossad agent Peter Malkin, in the true story of the 1960 capture of Eichmann by a team of Israeli operatives in Argentina. It is there that Eichmann, the mastermind behind the Nazis’ extermination policies, has been secretly living for 10 years, under the alias Ricardo Klement and the cover of a job in a Mercedes factory outside Buenos Aires.
Code-named Operation Finale, Malkin’s mission was not an assassination, but an extraction, from under the noses of Buenos Aires’s community of expat German anti-Semites and their Argentine sympathizers. (“What must we make of the Jew?” asks a leader of the group at one gathering, early in the film. “Soap!” shout his followers, who are comfortable enough not to hide their virulent bigotry.)
Sounds dramatic, no?
And for a while, it is. Opening with a short 1954 prologue that shows Malkin botching an earlier assignment — to demonstrate that the character is in need of redemption — the film quickly jumps to the tense preparations for, and carrying-out of, Eichmann’s capture. But the hard part begins only after Eichmann has been removed to a safe house, where he must be held — though “babysat” is probably a better word — until Malkin’s team can persuade him to sign an affidavit affirming his true identity.
This portion of the story — the bulk of the film — contains the real cat-and-mouse game, as Malkin and Eichmann engage in a dance of dueling intellects, with the two men debating the nature of evil, justice and truth itself. Unfortunately, whatever steam has been built up during the more compelling first act slowly dissipates under the overly talky, on-the-nose conclusion, despite some modest suspense ginned up as Argentine authorities get close to discovering the safe house.
“Operation Finale” has been called the thinking man’s Nazi retribution movie, and that’s not inaccurate. But in a screenplay (by British writer Matthew Orton) that brings no new or profound insights into Eichmann’s psyche, the film’s cerebral leanings make for a mostly limp and un-thrilling enterprise — more late-night argument between freshman philosophy students than either thought exercise or action film. Instead, the film by director Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”) feels dutiful and utilitarian. It’s neither great nor terrible, neither stylish nor unsexy, but exists in some serviceable compromise between both extremes.
As the German-born Malkin, Isaac is merely adequate in a role that gives him plenty of baggage, but he doesn’t go anywhere with it. Malkin’s spotty reputation as an agent, coupled with his lack of emotional closure regarding his own family’s history during the Holocaust, seem designed to add complexity and depth to his character but don’t work.
Kingsley is more interesting. With its villain, “Operation Finale” tries — at times a bit too hard — to convey the prosaic nature of Eichmann’s crimes, allowing the character plenty of moments in which to argue, as he says in one scene, that he was “merely a cog in a machine chugging its way to Hell.” When Eichmann is asked, in one of several interrogation scenes, whether he was, in fact, the “architect of the ‘Final Solution,’ ” Eichmann attempts to convey either indifference or humor. “We loved nicknames,” he says with a shrug, adding, without apparent irony or a sense of remorse, that he was mocked as the “little Jew” as a boy, a reference to his dark complexion. The enigmatic, contradictory bad guy is always inherently provocative.
The film’s hero, on the other hand, needs all the help he can get. To that end, “Operation Finale” changes the gender of one character — the Mossad doctor who administered the powerful narcotic haloperidol to Eichmann to incapacitate him — from male to female, casting Mélanie Laurent as Malkin’s former lover (and the team’s medical expert). This and other concessions to Hollywood, not history, smack of cynical calculation.
In the end, “Operation Finale” misses its aim — to illuminate the banality of evil — by that much, as the TV spy Maxwell Smart used to say. Instead, what it illustrates is the film’s lack of faith in its source material.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing thematic material, related violent images, and some coarse language. 118 minutes.