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Friday, August 31, 2018

Operation Finale

Operation Finale is a gripping story that's told sluggishly.  All the parts are in place for an engaging dramatic thriller.  The cast, which includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Peter Strauss, and comic actor Nick Kroll (in a rare dramatic role), certainly cannot be faulted.  Everyone's giving a good performance here.  And the story, about the attempt to capture one of the most powerful and notorious surviving architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, 15 years after the end of World War II should be compelling.  But the movie frequently stalls with dragged out and talky dialogue scenes when it should be ramping up the tension.

The acting is the one thing to recommend here, and it's not enough to overcome the wordy and dull screenplay by Matthew Orton, or the oddly leisurely pacing and direction of Chris Weitz.  As a filmmaker, Weitz is hard to pin down.  He got his start with 1999's American Pie, peaked with the wonderful About a Boy in 2002, and then pretty much languished in Young Adult Movies for the rest of the decade, even helming one of the Twilight movies.  He seems a bit lost here, as he is never able to create any suspense out of a situation that should be nail biting.  The pacing of the movie seems off early on, and it never improves.  I kept on waiting for the story to really kick into gear, or to create some edge of your seat excitement.  There are some moments late in the film that come close, but the movie is constantly holding itself back.  The whole time I was watching it, I was admiring the craft that went into the acting, but was left feeling cold about everything else.

That's definitely the last thing I expected walking into a movie about such a great story of when in 1960, a team of Israeli agents slipped into Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann, the notorious architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews.  The capture of Eichmann is not exactly the focus of the film, as it happens fairly early in the film and with little difficulty.  Instead, the movie follows the agents as they are forced to hide out in a safe house after their escape out of Argentina is delayed, and they have to keep Eichmann in captivity while they wait for their transport to come through.  The tension is supposed to come from the fact that Eichmann's fellow Nazis become aware of his disappearance, and start investigating, coming ever closer to discovering his whereabouts.  Also, as they hold him captive, Eichmann (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the film) proves to be a master manipulator, trying to get close to his captors and possibly worm his way into their trust and good will while he is locked away in a bedroom.

The story is told through the eyes of Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a German-born Israeli who is haunted by the memory of the death of his sister during the Holocaust.  Eichmann has haunting visions of his own of a Jewish woman who was gunned down while she was holding her infant child up to him, begging to be spared.  A connection between these two recurring flashbacks is never quite made, other than both men are clearly haunted by their own memories, and for different reasons.  Malkin becomes the head of the operation to capture Eichmann, despite a botched earlier attempt that opens the film.  He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Laurent), a medical doctor who has some qualms about joining him on the mission after she lost a patient during a previous mission.  Of the team, Malkin and Hannah are the only ones who get to make an impression.  The other members are largely interchangeable, and most probably won't remember their faces a few hours after they finish watching the film.

There's a training montage as the Israelis prepare for their capture mission, and then the capture goes down with little suspense or fanfare.  From that point, the movie is pretty much set entirely in the safe house, as Peter and his team wait for their transport out of Argentina.  Because of the limited scope of the film and the dialogue-heavy script (which relies heavily on exposition), I started to wonder if perhaps this script had started out as a stage play.  Whatever the case, the pacing is oddly inert and not very cinematic.  Characters are constantly explaining everything, violating one of the big rules of the movies - "show, don't tell".  What little action there is here is devoted to some of Eichmann's fellow Nazis and their investigation into his disappearance.  This is obviously intended to ratchet up the tension, and make us fear that Peter and his team will be discovered before they can leave with their capture.  But, thanks to the muddy screenplay and the aimless pacing, I never felt anything.

Despite the sluggish nature of Operation Finale, the music score by Alexandre Desplat pounds away, as if something exciting is happening, even if it isn't.  It begins to feel like the score is disconnected from the action on the screen, and it grated on me.  This is a movie that simply refused to come to life to me, despite the strong efforts of the cast.  Kingsley, in particular, creates a smug Eichmann who starts out guarded and cooperative, but slowly begins to enjoy toying with his captors, and even taking pride in his past actions.  Isaac is great to watch, as always, and does manage the film's few emotional moments whenever he is thinking back on his sister, or a scene early on when he happens to watch Eichmann spending a warm moment with a small boy, and enjoying family life.  The movie could have used more moments like this, as they're the only time it truly comes to life.

The real emotional punch of the film comes during the final moments, when we see archival footage of Eichmann's trial, which was televised.  All this did was make me wish I was watching a documentary on the subject, rather than the lifeless two hour dramatization I had just witnessed.

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