In the historical drama Operation Finale, a crack team of Mossad agents infiltrates Argentina after hearing news Adolph Eichmann, one of Adolph Hitler’s inner circle, continues to remain at large. Led by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), the team takes Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) hostage, interrogates him, and attempts to extradite him back to Israel. But while Eichmann’s supporters actively search for him in Argentina, the Mossad agents wrestle with questions about justice, honor, and history as the net closes in around them.
The audience’s introduction to Malkin captures his failure: in pursuing a previous Nazi leader, his team executed the wrong man. Pushed to the periphery of the Mossad, Malkin stews with his anger over his inability to track down other Nazis, tortured by the memory of a loved one (revealed later) who was butchered by the Nazis. Remarkably, director Chris Weitz carefully lays down the cards, building the tension without ever pushing the violence to a gross-out level. The camera teases, showing Eichmann as normal, likeable even, allowing for questions to rise about how much responsibility would be appropriate to lay at his feet.
In reporting from the trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, philosopher Hannah Arendt noted how the “Architect of the Holocast” acted with a nonchalant ordinary man vibe, that his active participation in the annihilation of ten million people was the “banality of evil.” Weitz’s work here allows for the ordinariness of Eichmann to shine through, while beneath it lurks a much more dangerous beast.
While the kidnapping of Eichmann happens reasonably early in the film, marking the Mossad’s successful operation behind enemy lines, the tension continues to ratchet up as Malkin and Eichmann begin circling each other in psychological, emotional, and spiritual terms. Malkin is fighting against the push and pull of several members of his team, some who want to end the operation by putting a bullet in Eichmann’s brain and others who want to see him stand trial, so that the world will never forget the ten million lives lost.
Eichmann clearly remembers his actions as driven by a desire to protect his homeland, following orders and carrying out decisions that were in the best interests of Germany; Malkin wants to focus on humanity and the inhumanity of the Third Reich’s decisions. As they slowly circle closer and closer to each other, through smoking, shaving, and shared stories, the audience might believe that the two could eventually become friends, or that something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome has unfolded. And then the headstrong, sure-minded arrogance surfaces.
“We’re all animals fighting for scraps on the Serengeti,” Kingsley as Eichmann says, “Some of us just have bigger teeth.”
There’s the rub: Eichmann believes that everyone is just like him, that they would make the same decisions he did. But Malkin, and other members of his team, prove to be different, because their idealism actually does drive them, not order-following, or numeric decisions. The Mossad agents prove to be focused on what is right, what is just, and what is humane, even at risk to themselves. This is a moral struggle between justice and injustice, law and order, good and evil.
The film is intent on reminding the world of the dangers of violence, inhumane ideologies, and a lack of compassion even today, as the Israeli Prime Minister warns the Mossad team early on that they are all that stands between the truth of the world remembering the Holocaust and it fading into obscurity, even as some claim that it never happened. But the film also reminds us that the moral fiber in our souls was put there for a reason. That still small voice whispering and reminding and encouraging to do what is good must be listened to, and never ignored.