Allow me to spin you a tale about a 20th-century existentialist philosopher named Hannah Arendt. She was—and is—one of the most important contributors to political philosophy in recent history. She had an affair with Martin Heidegger, another renowned member of the existentialist movement. Their relationship soured when Heidegger became a Nazi. As a philosopher and a Jew who had a profound intellectual relationship with a Nazi, Arendt wrote brilliant literature on the scandals of the Nazi mind. Her most famous book centered on the trial of Holocaust engineer Adolf Eichmann, who is a key character in “Operation Finale”.
In her book, Arendt—who attended the trial to cover it for The New Yorker—makes a haunting observation about Eichmann that echoes through the annals of history and proves true again and again. The lesson she takes away from Eichmann’s disposition is “the banality of evil”, a term she coined to describe how utterly normal it is for humankind to commit unspeakable wickedness. Adolf Eichmann isn’t an immoral anomaly—the capacity for a Nazi following orders exists within all of us. And if performance is any indication of an actor’s true self, it definitely exists within Ben Kingsley.
“Operation Finale” tells the true story of the Israeli spies that captured Adolf Eichmann and brought him to stand trial in Jerusalem. Ben Kingsley plays the infamous Eichmann, the Nazi known as the “architect of the Final Solution”, and he embodies the banality of evil to a disturbing degree. Kingsley’s eerie typicality suggests a latent internalizing of the justification of genocide, and yet a full humanity remains. This is the kind of performance that deserves recognition. Kingsley has portrayed historical figures from across the morality spectrum—from Gandhi to Nazi—and his hard work warrants awards.
The most invigorating segments of “Operation Finale” are conversations between Adolf Eichmann and Israeli spy Peter Malkin. Oscar Isaac portrays Malkin here, flexing his tried and true method of alternating between stern and playful. Isaac and Kingsley charge their exchanges with bolts of tension: watching the monster and man go man-to-man is scintillating, and the ethical minefield they wander seems always on the brink of explosion.
Despite its length, the whole of “Operation Finale” is similarly engaging, even if it can’t maintain the vitality of the dialogue between Eichmann and Malkin. This film is expertly directed, shot, scored, and especially edited—scenes clip by nimbly and stitch together seamlessly, bringing history to life with a purpose that not all historical dramas can muster. It’s like a movie version of the exciting parts of your history textbook.
It’s when “Operation Finale” tries to transcend its historical details that it falls on its face. Attempts to insert character arcs into history are bald-faced and unconvincing, and it’s obvious when events are being altered for entertainment purposes. The most egregious example is the transformation of real-life doctor Yonah Elian—who was a man—into a female character. This decision was ostensibly made in the interest of diluting the male dominance of history, but Elian unceremoniously serves as Malkin’s love interest and occasional source of motivation. Thankfully, Mélanie Laurent brings more to her role than the screenwriters’ fumbled tokenism.
While “Operation Finale” doesn’t bring many hard questions to the table beyond what the cast’s performances evoke, it’s still an exciting slice of history and one that takes seriously the role of Jewish identity in post-Holocaust narratives. The novelization would be a page-turner—perhaps it should even be taught in schools!