Operation Finale stars Ben Kingsley as Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the German transportation minister who organized the Final Solution and whose phlegmatic demeanor inspired the phrase "banality of evil."
Kingsley's version of Eichmann, though, is in no way banal. The actor gives him the darting eyes of an animal alert to danger and projects a malevolent intelligence that suggests a cornered and dangerous predator.
The Eichmann of Operation Finale has taken his infamous reputation for attention to detail and applied it to the task of staying anonymous, staying alive. In 1960, he's living off the grid as a factory foreman in a Buenos Aires suburb (no electricity or phone), a remote place where strangers will be noticed.
He's been able to elude an international dragnet, but when his son takes a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) to a clandestine fascist rally, she deduces the family secret and relays the information to her Holocaust-survivor father (Peter Strauss), who in turn notifies Israeli authorities.
That sets in motion the covert-mission mechanics that drive the first half of the picture — Mossad and Shin Bet agents are assembled and sent to Argentina, where they conduct surveillance on Eichmann, confirm his identity, then concoct and execute a plan to capture him.
These elements are presented in competent fashion by director Chris Weitz (Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass), though he's working with a sometimes flat-footed script. Members of the surveillance team conform to archetypes (trigger happy, by-the-book, etc.), and the dormant romance added to spice up the relationship between agents Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and Hanna (Melanie Laurent) is straight out of the Alistair MacLean playbook and also dates to 1960.
The screenplay really strains credulity when it suggests the agents are operating with the approval of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, but without the approval of Israeli commercial airline El Al, which purportedly demands a consent form from Eichmann (no in-flight meals, no kidnapping).
This MacGuffin exists solely to set up the subsequent battle of wits between Malkin and Eichmann — Malkin trying to cajole a signature from Eichmann, the captive pursuing his own perverse agenda. Eichmann does not want to be judged in Israeli courts and would rather die, and he tries to manipulate Malkin and other agents into making that happen.
Their back-and-forth has echoes of The Silence of the Lambs — captured super-predator projecting power from a place of confinement, prying personal details from his interrogator, taking a sick kind of pleasure in it.
Isaac and Kingsley are game, and their scenes have decent dramatic tension, but of course the outcome is never in doubt, and in the end, Weitz is left to rely on more contrived thriller elements to give the movie a finishing kick, which feels nonetheless like a letdown.