(CNN) — Consider it a disquieting sign of the times that “Operation Finale” possesses more cathartic resonance than it might have a few years ago, simply by offering a reminder of the horrors of Nazism. A slow-moving thriller, this true story about Mossad agents who brought Adolf Eichmann to justice derives its power largely from the psychological square-off between Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in the pivotal roles.
For those rusty on their history, Eichmann — one of the architects behind Hitler’s “Final Solution” — had escaped to Argentina, where he was living and working under an assumed name, supported by a web of fascists and expatriated Germans.
Fifteen years after the war, a Mossad team is tasked with capturing Eichmann and secretly conveying him to Israel, where he was publicly tried for his crimes.
The delicate operation includes a fractious team possessing different notions regarding how to proceed, with all of them having lost loved ones during the Holocaust, adding a sobering personal dimension to the plot.
“How many did you lose?” someone asks ruefully, producing an exchange of stories.
Director Chris Weitz and writer Matthew Orton face a certain structural impediment in crafting the story, inasmuch as agent Peter Malkin (Isaac) and his colleagues snatch Eichmann (Kingsley) relatively early in the film. The challenge becomes waiting for and orchestrating the window to ferry him away, forcing them to interact with this personification of the evil that befell them while evading detection from Argentine officials.
The static, slightly claustrophobic nature of that dynamic still allows for a good deal of tension, even if the outcome is known. What ultimately makes “Operation Finale” worth watching, if not exactly riveting, is the interplay between captor and prisoner, with Eichmann seeking to manipulate Malkin, who is convinced that playing to the Nazi’s ego offers the best way to secure his cooperation.
Kingsley brings an unsettling quality to the role, even as Eichmann offers alibis and deflections. The filmmakers fare less well in fleshing out Isaac’s character, including Malkin’s past relationship with a doctor (Melanie Laurent, who also battled Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds”) recruited to join the team. Michael Aronov is also particularly good as an agent with whom Malkin butts heads.
The film does collapse the timeline somewhat to enhance the drama, and as noted, even with that “Operation Finale” moves a bit sluggishly — compared to, say, “Munich,” its most recent spiritual kin. Still, there are old-fashioned virtues in the espionage story, and considerable power in the underlying notion of Israel seizing control of a narrative where Jews had been victims.
Eichmann’s arrest and prosecution remains a significant moment in the war’s aftermath, exposing those crimes on a global stage. While “Operation Finale” might not be a huge hit now, as another glimpse at a history that loses those capable of first-person testimonials daily, it’s the kind of movie likely to have a long shelf life.
“Operation Finale” opens Aug. 29 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.
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