Back in 1986, “Firing Line” host William F. Buckley asked former New York Times Moscow correspondent Harrison Salisbury which was worse, Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine or Hitler’s mass murder of Jews? As Salisbury knew, the Times’ Walter Duranty, who wrote that no famine took place, privately conceded that as many as 10 million may have perished in Ukraine. Even so, Salisbury said that the Nazis were worse because they had attempted to wipe an entire people off the face of the earth. That “final solution” is the back story to Operation Finale, which opened in American theaters Wednesday.
The German National Socialist Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years fell after little more than a decade and in the chaotic final days many prominent Nazis were able to escape the Allies and slip away. In 1950, Adolf Eichmann made his way to Argentina where he lived under the name of Ricardo Klement, issued by the Italian delegation of the Red Cross in Geneva.
He lives quietly in bustling Buenos Aires but local Jews learn that Klement, who works at a Mercedes-Benz factory, is really Eichmann. Word quickly gets back to Israel, but the Mossad is skeptical. As the film shows, the vaunted intelligence agency has been known to slip up and, as one character says, “kill the wrong Nazi.”
Eichmann is lured outside his home, secretly photographed and positively identified. Even in Argentina it would be easy to assassinate him but Israel wants to capture the Nazi fugitive and put him on trial, so the world will know the truth. So on one level, Operation Finale is the ultimate heist movie, with a difference. As Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale) tells the secret agents, history is in their hand and they must not fail.
Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) heads up the operation, and he has a special motive because the Nazis murdered his sister Fruma. Yet, of all the agents who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, he takes the most relaxed approach. Malkin’s former flame Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent) will be charged with sedating the Nazi for the trip back. The film rushes through the preparations but viewers will get a sense of spy craft circa 1960, long before personal computers and the internet, with false passports, safe houses and the like. No James Bond characters in this film.
Eichmann is a “human metronome” on his daily routine but his capture will be tricky. If the film rushes through the kidnap plot, viewers quickly understand the reason. The plan had been to whisk him out of the country but the departure is delayed ten days. So viewers get to see a lot of the Nazi.
With his famous 1982 performance as Gandhi, one might think Ben Kingsley would work best as one of the Nazi hunters. Here he plays Eichmann his own self, and viewers will be hard pressed to think of anyone who could turn in a more convincing performance.
In his interactions with captors, the core of Operation Finale, Eichmann goes through stages of denial and confession. He was just a cog in a machine, only following orders, and so forth. Kingsley manages to convey what Hannah Arendt, who covered Eichmann’s trial for the New Yorker, called the “banality of evil,” cold bureaucratic machinery deployed to take millions of lives. But viewers will have no doubt that Eichmann was an evil man.
The Israeli agents get Eichmann out of Argentina disguised as an El Al crew member. The film omits the huge diplomatic uproar this caused, but no great loss. The Israelis put Eichmann on trial and viewers see plenty of evidence about the six million back stories. Harrison Salisbury knew of what he spoke in 1986.
As the film notes, and as this writer recalls, the trial was televised around the world. Viewers see photos of Eichmann on the stand, and the resemblance with the film character is startling. Critics are certain to nit-pick some details, and perhaps some minor performances, but overall this is cinéma vérité at the highest level and a primer for millennials.