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'Operation Finale': Crime & Punishment

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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Director Chris Weitz's "Operation Finale," a tension-filled historical drama about the Israeli Mossad's 1960 capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, reminded me of a turning point.
 
In my house when I was little, you didn't hear the actual word Holocaust. More often, the tragedy that had annihilated half of my family was referred to, in hushed tones, in terms of Hitler: before Hitler, during Hitler and after Hitler. Before was good, a seeming Heaven on Earth that maybe only we children would one day again realize. It was the unspoken hope.
 
But word that Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, had been captured, seemed to change things, to embolden those who had either survived the death camps or had successfully hidden for the entirety of the onslaught. Now they spoke of it — not as victims, but as survivors.
 
Suddenly, conversations contained more about the Future than the Before. The term survivor meant, "They didn't get me, and now we got him." But it wasn't as much about revenge as it was about vindication, a right to life and liberty, and that justice, albeit symbolic and slow, prevailed.
 
Oscar Isaac's portrayal of Peter Malkin, a top operative in charge of capturing Eichmann and bringing him to trial in Israel, embodies these emotions, the full weight and fate of the civilized world resting on his troubled shoulders. Flashbacks recount his personal losses, including scenes identifying the insane horror and ghoulishness of the Holocaust as an official policy of a major government.
 
While director Weitz carefully curbs the macabre and graphic truths so as not to overshadow the sociopolitical knowledge engendered, the mind boggles, as it must. Most shocking and frightening are the all-too-familiar expressions and buzzwords employed in the one-on-one conversations Malkin has with the Nazi SS officer during his turn in the guarding rotation, the flight to Israel delayed due to a diplomatic glitch. 
 
Whether it's a simple matter of history repeating itself or the dynamic of readily available similarities and metaphors offering us insight into our own current debacle, the hairs on the back of our necks stand up when Eichmann scoffs at the notion of truth ("Whose truth?" he rants) and calls Jews animals. Sound familiar?
 
Ben Kingsley flourishes his usual brilliance as the caged monster, the beast as both self-pitying victim and unappreciated justifier of his misdeeds. The great feat here is that while his studiously constructed Eichmann never gains our sympathy, he is imbued with just enough slivers of humanity to illustrate how such despots, borrowing a trick from the Devil, feign compassion in order to corrupt gullible folks desperate for easy answers. Hmm. As subplot, Isaac's pensive Peter Malkin is a treatise in heroism, duty, honor, restraint and what it means to be a mensch.
 
There is hardly a paragraph of the film's dialogue that doesn't have as part of its elucidative sinew the attempt to understand the perennial war between good and evil and to applaud those who fight on the side of virtue. But the fascinating artistic achievement, aside of course from hoping to posit lessons from one of humankind's darkest chapters, is that, even though we know what happens, Weitz and his capable cast keep us on tenterhooks throughout the adventure.
 
Worried that some snafu might arise, we regularly remind ourselves of how this saga ended.
 
In addition to being an important adjunct to the events that have caused all sane human beings to declare that such an unthinkable horror must "Never Again" occur, on a less essential plane the actual catch, hold and export of Eichmann is quite an escapade. Aside from the fictional insertion of Mélanie Laurent's Dr. Hanna Elian as Malkin's love interest/mission colleague, its accuracy is assured by several sources. As such, this is barebones derring-do, espionage, and covert bravado the old-fashioned way. There's no 007 magic here only brains and bravery.
 
But make no mistake about the role that revenge plays here, a primal passion integral to our being no matter how much we declare our desire to eschew it from our vocabulary of sentiments.
 
By every sense of justice we've accumulated since rising from the primordial mud, the convicting and sentencing of an aberrant pariah such as Adolf Eichmann is incumbent on any society proclaiming itself to be civil. Thus, inherent in the cerebral righting of venality, herein is contained the unapologetic, visceral rush of seeing the evildoer caught, vanquished, punished.
 
In the calm, post-cataclysmic moments leading up to the postscripts that tell what happened to whom, an eerie feeling insinuates itself. Albeit imperative politically and juridically that Israel settled this horrendous page in one of history's most despicable chapters, we know that wholesale genocide still blotches the globe, replete with mini-Hitlers and their complicit Eichmanns. We can only hope that the wisdom gained from narratives like "Operation Finale" may one day lead to a finale of this deviancy that contests our species' right to call itself human.
 
"Operation Finale," rated PG-13, is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release directed by Chris Weitz and stars Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley and Mélanie Laurent. Running time: 122 minutes

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