‘Operation Finale,” the new film about the abduction of Adolf Eichmann and the perilous effort of Mossad agents to transport him to Israel for trial for crimes against humanity, is something of a throwback, an entertaining and thought-provoking reminder of the way that the American film industry used to work at its best.
Start with a first-time screenwriter, Matthew Orton, who has a fascination with history and recognizes that the story he wants to tell needs to be more than just a drama of ideas if he is going to find the money needed to make a period drama. Take a couple of seasoned producers, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Fred Berger, looking to break out of the genre market, and a director, Chris Weitz, who feels a personal affinity to the story and brings a unique blend of social concerns and action-film chops to the table. Add a multinational cast that blends American, British and Israeli stars.
The result could have been a multinational disaster, like many WWII-themed films of recent vintage, but Weitz and Orton are resolute in their approach, a frequently steely blend of spy thriller motifs and serious but not overblown talk about remembrance, family and justice. As a result, “Operation Finale” is a satisfying reminder that sometimes the best way to tell a difficult story is in a familiar framework.
Weitz is probably best known for his work with his brother Paul (“About a Boy,” “American Pie”) and more recent solo ventures like “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “A Better Life.” The latter two reveal a conscious movement from blockbuster teen film to serious, deeply felt problem drama. His connection to the Eichmann story is a profound one; his father, novelist and clothing designer John Weitz, was a refugee from Hitler and the family lost many relatives in the Shoah.
Oddly enough, though, it’s Weitz’s background in comedy films that helps raise “Operation Finale” above the standard-issue solemnity that too often embalms contemporary films about the murder of Europe’s Jews. Weitz takes the material seriously, but he also is alive to the need of men and women under pressure to seek some refuge in humor. That understanding helps make the film a real throwback — to the golden days of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, astute judges of when a tension-breaking laugh is appropriate and essential.
Like Hawks, Weitz centers his drama around a close-knit group working in concert and gets a lot of mileage out of the way they interact and complete one another in a world in which the primary gauge of your worth is how well you do your job. Similarly, it’s a world in which women function as equals, starting with Mélanie Laurent as Hannah Regev, a doctor working with the Mossad extraction team. And, as is usually the case with Hawks, the protagonists are all flawed figures with haunted pasts. Regev failed in her last assignment. At the outset of the film we see Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and other operatives in an extraction attempt that is a disastrous failure. And Peter has a checkered past with Hannah, just to add another level of Hawksian tension to the assignment.
The Hitchcock elements of “Operation Finale” are more obvious. Weitz handles the big set pieces — the abduction of Eichmann (Sir Ben Kingsley), a brutal manhunt by Argentine police and neo-Nazis, the final chase to the airport, with its echoes of “Casablanca” — with the kind of precision and élan that made Hitchcock one of the great directors of pure entertainment. At the same time, though, Weitz uses the Hitchcockian framework to focus our attention on the vastly more serious issues at stake, another key element in Hitchcock’s mastery.
The keys to elevating the film above the merely entertaining are two-fold. First, and most obviously taken from the Hitchcock playbook, is the presence of a strong antagonist, articulate, smart, even charming (albeit in a creepy way). Kingsley, whose association with films about the Shoah is proverbial, makes a surprisingly deft Eichmann, a vivid foil for Isaac’s troubled but forthright secret agent. The scenes between the two men are at once a fabulous acting workshop and at the same time a not unintelligent review of the issues at stake. Given Kingsley’s iconography in the genre, casting him against type as one of the principal architects of the “Final Solution” (the actor is a couple decades older than Eichmann ever lived to be, and he does not bear Eichmann’s chiseled features and pale eye color) is a stroke of dramatic irony that makes the film resonate more intensely.
As a rule, one should not look to fiction films for the big history lesson. The constraints of good dramaturgy don’t always gibe with historical fact. Period films are never really about the period in which they are set; by necessity, they are about the period in which they are made. “Operation Finale,” for all its enthusiasm and skill, doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Shoah, but as a warning about the forces of nativism, reactionary nationalism and hatred of the Other, it is a useful cautionary tale about this morning’s headlines. And as spy thriller, it rocks.
“Operation Finale” opened on Wednesday, Aug. 29 at local theaters.