"Operation Finale" is well aware -- and how could it not be -- that it has a singular and significant true story to tell, and it has done its best to do justice to its source.
As directed by Chris Weitz from a script by Matthew Orton, "Operation," which opens Wednesday, details Israel's storied capture of fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Final Solution, snatched on a Buenos Aires street in 1960 and clandestinely transported out of Argentina for a landmark Israeli trial.
Though the story has been filmed more than once before, this version is notable for Ben Kingsley's expert work as Eichmann and for how handsomely the proceedings have been mounted by production designer David Brisbin and his team and shot by veteran Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.
Just as fortunately, considerable attention has been paid to visual historical accuracy, including shooting at the actual neighborhood bus stop Eichmann used every day. (The line he took before he was abducted is apparently still running.)
But the efforts of an international cast including stars Oscar Isaac, Melanie Laurent and Nick Kroll notwithstanding, "Operation Finale" sounds more involving than it actually plays, ending up earnest and acceptable more than compelling.
Despite some undeniably strong moments and Kingsley's engaging performance, director Weitz ("About a Boy," "The Golden Compass") and company have not succeeded in creating excitement in either dramatic or thriller terms. While the bones of the story pull us in, the low voltage, pro forma execution pushes us away.
Though the Eichmann kidnapping was an Israeli team effort with members of both Mossad and Shin Bet agencies involved, one man actually did the physical grabbing.
His name is Peter Malkin, and (in collaboration with Harry Stein) he wrote a book with a title, "Eichmann in My Hands," that is arguably more dramatic than the film on offer.
When we catch up with Malkin (as played by "Star Wars" regular Isaac) in Israel after an earlier botched mission in Austria, he is clearly in the Mossad doghouse, considered with good reason to be impulsive and self-absorbed.
"Operation Finale" reveals the reason Malkin is the way he is: He's obsessed with avenging the fate of his sister Fruma, whose death he imagines in several different ways because he has no idea how it happened.
Eichmann, though nominally in hiding, is introduced reminiscing to a group of sympathetic Argentines about what he did in the war. "Our work was paperwork," he blandly insists. "Our war was a numerical one."
'Star Wars' regular Oscar Isaac learns a history lesson in 'Operation Finale' �
Though Kingsley has played any number of dark individuals (his "Sexy Beast" gangster remains a knockout), the actor manages to do things a little differently here, playing Eichmann as a compelling kind of uber-accountant and conveying an air of quiet but palpable menace.
"Operation Finale's" story proper begins in Buenos Aires when a young woman named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) flirts with a young man named Klaus (Joe Alwyn) in a movie theater while a scene from "Imitation of Life" (starring director Weitz's actress-mother Susan Kohner) plays on screen.
Long story short, Hermann finds out from her father Lothar (Peter Strauss) that she is Jewish and also comes to realize that Klaus' father is none other than the fugitive Eichmann.
When this information reaches Jerusalem, however, some in Israeli intelligence think it's old news. Not so Rafi Eitan (Kroll), one of Malkin's superiors, who convinces higher ups about the validity of the mission and puts Malkin on the team.
Also recruited is the fetching Dr. Hanna Elian (Laurent), a composite character who's had bad experiences with Mossad in the past, not to mention a love affair with our hero.
The doctor is needed because, though some members of the team are itching to "put him down like a mad dog," the goal of the mission is to sedate Eichmann and bring him back alive to stand trial.
As Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale, last seen as the sinister Lavrenti Beria in "The Death of Stalin") says in a last-minute pep talk, "for the first time in our history, we will judge executioners. For the sake of our people I beg you, do not fail."
Fail they do not, but in the hands of "Operation Finale" it is a near thing. Though the snatch and grab goes off flawlessly (and is one of the film's strongest scenes), a situation arises where Eichmann's signature is needed on a document and nothing will do but for Malkin himself to go one on one with the evildoer to attempt to get him to sign.
The two actors differ in age and acting styles, and in theory their battle might have played out like Raymond Massey toe to toe with James Dean in the legendary confrontation in "East of Eden." But in cinematic terms it is a one-sided affair.
For while Isaac's Malkin never catches fire, Kingsley's Eichmann fascinates. An accomplished manipulator, "slippery as they came," who effortlessly plays mind games with the entire Israeli team, Eichmann gets under everyone's skin even though they are on high alert to prevent just that from happening.
One of the problems with "Operation Finale" is that Isaac's performance is not enough on fire to sustain what becomes the film's focus on Malkin's journey to find himself and come to terms with the traumas of his past. Yes, Malkin grabbed Eichmann, but the film about how it all went down does not return the favor.
Rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material and related violent images, and for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general release ___
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