Early in Operation Finale, a docudrama about the capture of fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann (played by Ben “Man Of A Thousand Nationalities” Kingsley), Eichmann endures a grilling from Mossad and Shin Bet agents, who’ve just grabbed him outside the Argentina home where he’s been hiding in fairly plain sight for 15 years. He sticks firmly for a while to his cover story, insisting that he’s a simple laborer, not the architect of the Holocaust they’re seeking. The agent in charge then proceeds to list every particular of Eichmann’s Nazi service record, including his military ID number—which we can see, via a sheet of paper in the agent’s hand, that he’s deliberately getting wrong. The agent keeps repeating the incorrect number, emphasizing it louder and louder, until Eichmann finally snaps and corrects the mistake, admitting his true identity. It’s a gotcha that would look right at home at the conclusion of a Perry Mason episode, and just one example of the many ways in which this ostensibly historical account feels resoundingly Hollywood-phony.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the broad strokes of Eichmann’s capture—events from which first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton can’t realistically deviate—just aren’t all that exciting. Once identified, Eichmann was simply tackled on the street by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), about 30 seconds after the former SS-Obersturmbannführer disembarked from a bus; the best the movie can offer by way of suspense, working from real-life detail, is that Eichmann isn’t on the bus the Israelis expect, but shows up on the next bus. Nor is there much intricate planning leading up to this anticlimax. Consequently, Orton is forced to manufacture tension, which he consistently does by resorting to cliché. Sure, it’s possible that Mossad provoked Eichmann into confessing with the wrong-detail ruse, just as it’s possible that Malkin, whose sister was murdered by Nazis, shaved Eichmann with a straight razor in the days before they managed to smuggle him out of Argentina by plane (in a sequence that plays remarkably like the finale of Argo). As the blade slowly scrapes across the Nazi’s bare throat, however, it’s hard not to think, “Yeah, right.”
Indeed, only the A-list cast distinguishes Operation Finale from your run-of-the-mill TV movie, for which it could otherwise be easily mistaken. Kingsley has been here before, having played a similar (but fictional) role in Roman Polanski’s Death And The Maiden (1994), which at least has some real juice to it; as Eichmann, he relies heavily on the bland self-possession with which the man conducted himself during his televised trial, achieving accuracy at the expense of drama. Isaac, playing the film’s ostensible protagonist, has been handed so many generic lines and situations (including a tepid semi-romance with a fellow agent played by Mélanie Laurent) that he often comes across like a glorified extra—if you caught a minute or two of his performance on cable, you’d assume it must be a tiny role from his pre-stardom period, before filmmakers began tapping his natural charisma. Hell, this is a movie that somehow manages to make Nick Kroll boring. Alexandre Desplat contributes an urgent, aggressively stylized score that would be terrific in another context but sounds all wrong for this sober material, and director Chris Weitz—yes, the American Pie guy—is just out of his depth. Operation Finale means to embody the banality of evil, but it’s mostly mired in plain old banality.