Operation Finale and all the images you see in this review are owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Chris Weitz
Now that I think of it, when was the last time we got a World War 2 movie that actually tackled the events and consequences of the war? I mean we had Dunkirk which was one big battle scene more or less divorced from the ideological conflict of the war itself, and I never got around to seeing The Darkest Hour. Heck, the last World War 2 movie I remember before that is Allied, and I’m pretty sure that comment right there makes me the only person who’s brought it up in over a year! Needless to say that with the current political landscape being what it is, we could probably use another World War 2 movie that actually mentions The Holocaust; especially with what we’re learning about full US citizens in Texas being denied passports due to the color of their skin which is hardly a far cry from what happened to German Jews as the Nazi party was taking over. Does this mean that we have a fantastic film on our hands right at the start of Oscar season (I’m pretty sure I’ve been saying that for like a month now), or is this a disappointing retread of far better movies that have come before? Let’s find out!!
The movie is a dramatization of the capture of Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in Argentina by Israeli spies, which I don’t THINK was actually named Operation Finale, but for the purposes of this film that’s what they’re going with. If you don’t know already, Eichmann was one of Hitler’s top official who basically orchestrated The Final Solution; organizing the prisoners, making sure the trains run on time, and ensuring there’s enough gas, bullets, and graves to go around so that the genocide of millions can be done as efficiently as possible. Needless to say he’s not a nice dude, and our head spy Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) can’t wait to bring him to justice, even though he’s a loose cannon that messed up his last mission, but darn it! He’s the best they’ve got! The mission itself is fairly simple where Peter and a few members of his team will snatch the guy, drive him back to the safe house, and have their anesthetic specialist Hanna (Mélanie Laurent) put him to sleep so they can sneak him past Argentinian airport security and put him on a plane back to Israel to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. Things go FAIRLY well at first, but problems start to build up and they team is basically stuck with a Nazi jerk in a house located in what seems to be the epicenter of Nazi activity in Argentina, and a rather long time to wait until they get a proper escape plan in place once the initial one goes up in smoke. Can everyone who’s stuck in that house keep their heads down long enough for them to escape with their a Nazi war criminal AND their lives? What will Peter do when he’s finally alone with the man responsible for not just millions of deaths, but the deaths of people very close to him whose faces still haunt him to this day? Is it just me, or has Oscar Isaac been fighting A LOT of fascists?
When people talk about prestige films and Oscar bait, the commonly held opinion is that they are boring drawing room dramas or cloying puff pieces that try to tackle difficult subject matter with all the grace of a sledgehammer. Now this isn’t always the case, not when best picture winners can be about fishman sex, but with films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Phantom Thread, and ESPECIALLY the still go to example of Oscar Bait known as The King’s Speech, it’s not that hard to see how the reputation has persisted with those who don’t see that many films each year. Even for someone like me though who DOES try to go see everything, I only have so much tolerance for films like that, and I think this is why I really enjoyed this movie as much as I did as it does feel like it covers important and relevant topics like many of these films do, but it manages to get all that across in a B-Spy Thriller that feels like a cheesy hold over the seventies. Now it’s not the most ORIGINAL way to approach subject matter like this as it’s basically copying the formula of Argo (another movie that won Best Picture), but this one feels like its flying under everyone’s radar when it’s still a really solid film! You know, like the spies in the movie! Hey, maybe that’s just the latest form of viral marketing! Did you see the latest spy movie? Of course not! YOU NEVER EVEN KNEW IT WAS THERE!!
Now when I say this is a B-Spy Thriller, I’m not talking about something that’s blatantly over the top like Kingsman or even Mission Impossible; rather it manages to tell a rather gripping if ultimately low key extraction mission (there’s no need for explosive violence, hand to hand combat, or “hacking the mainframe”) with a certain amount of pulpy thrill to it. There’s a sharp sense of humor throughout that turns scenes that would normally be slick and professional into bits of very human moments of comedy (there’s a scene where someone gives a very high pitched scream that is both hilarious to hear and gut wrenching to watch as we try to determine if anyone heard it), and our heroes are a lot more grounded than the likes of James Bond or Ethan Hunt as they have genuine flaws and internal biases that keep them from being less than the perfect vessel from which expert spy craft exudes out of. One guy is perpetually angry and ready to punch the Nazi, but there’s a very disarming moment (for both the audience and him) when he inadvertently laughs at one of Eichmann’s jokes, and that’s just one example of the very compelling way that each of these characters are crafted. It’s a bit grimy and never particularly sexy like we’ve come to expect from the more polished spy films while also never forgetting to have a bit of fun with itself which distinguishes it from the films in the opposite direction like Red Sparrow that try to strip so much of the romanticism out of the genre to the point of almost self-parody. I still think Argo is better in terms of filmmaking as the production is MUCH richer in terms of detail and scope, but there really hasn’t been a movie since then to pick up where it left off and I think this one does as good a job as any.
Now this is where my own ignorance of history is probably gonna start shining through, but what I probably liked most about this movie is that it shone a really big light on something that I simply didn’t know much about. Sure I knew that Nazis in South America were a THING, but mostly in terms of jokes like with Dr. Krieger in the show Archer or as broken down men who weren’t doing anything at that point other than be targets for payback like when Magento killed a bunch of them in X-Men: First Class. Hey, what can I tell you? We never covered it in school as far as I can remember; neither did we cover any OTHER country’s efforts to recruit Nazi scientists and engineers after the war (*cough* Operation Paperclip *cough*). The thing that this movie makes VERY clear (which is one of its more biting moments of contemporary commentary) is that these people didn’t just run away to keep their heads down; their ideology was a poison that infected the people around them, especially their families. With these monsters being let to live out their lives and escape justice, it allowed their ideas and hateful rhetoric to take root somewhere else which the movie tries to get across. I don’t think it worked PERFECTLY as it really only hits home in that one Neo-Nazi meeting and a few scattered scenes of them enacting violence, but the point is still there and can be very easily applied to where we are right now with far right extremism taking root not just in the US but across the world. A film shouldn’t be where you learn about history, but I think it’s important that we still make films like this that keep reminding us of the horrors of the Holocaust and the scars it leaves behind for all those that survive it. Each member of this extraction team had lost loved ones in the Holocaust and the anger, fear, and sadness informs all their actions throughout the film; both the good ones and the bad ones. As World War 2 and The Holocaust fade further into memory as the generation who lived through it is starting to leave us, maybe an occasional reminder is the LEAST we can do to honor the memories of those who were lost and to truly live the idea of Never Again. I don’t know if this movie will help with that, but it’s what I was thinking as I was watching it, and that should count for SOMETHING, right?
Now I do have a few minor issues with the film that mostly concern its pacing and plotting. It’s very narrowly focused on the mission which would be fine if said mission had a few more twists and turns to it, but by the halfway point we’re kind of settled into one location with one goal that DOES have a ticking clock connected to it, but not an overly urgent one. The characters and dialogue make up for a lot of this, but you can’t help but think that a lot of these scenes could have been significantly trimmed down so there was more time to flesh out the subplots and the political climate of the place they are in. It never really strays too far away from the safe house and their attempts to crack Eichmann, but in doing so you’re left with nagging questions that the film should have answered. Just how ingrained into Argentina’s political systems are these New Nazi Party scumbags? As I mentioned earlier we see a closed door meeting in the first act of the movie, but I couldn’t tell if there were any actual government officials there or if it was just a bunch of cranky fascists spewing hate in an echo chamber. If you do even a little bit of research into the Nazis escaping to Argentina, there are a lot of fascinating things this movie never really touches upon that would have done a great job of making the safe house feel that much less safe and escalating the tensions inside. I guess it might have taken a bit too much focus from the operation itself, but there’s no mention of Rat Lines, President Juan Perón’s policies that basically opened the floodgate for fleeing Nazis to find refuge in Argentina, even the fact that the freaking Vatican turned a blind eye to the war criminals high tailing it out of Europe to avoid justice. You don’t really get a sense of that kind of atmosphere in the country and at most the Nazis look like a biker gang made up of a bunch of slick haired tools. Outside of the BIG PICTURE stuff, there are a few characters that feel a bit mishandled in this. The girl in Argentina who helps the agents identify Eichmann just sort of drops out of the movie entirely even when something REALLY significant happens to her in the second act, and there’s one person working for the agents who meets a rather nasty and kind of unnecessarily judgmental end. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but this one character makes a mistake out of greed which the movie is VERY clear to show you was the WRONG THING TO DO, but then you couple that with imagery of Nazi torture and it plays out almost like a punishment of sorts and it didn’t really sit well with me. None of this hurts the movie TOO much for what it’s trying to do, but I guess seeing this movie only made me want one that was BIGGER and tackled much more of the post-war efforts to root out Nazis and Nazism. I guess it’s a GOOD thing that the film left me wanting more of something like it, but it also left me wanting just a little bit less of what it was actually offering.
Maybe everyone is expecting Oscar Season to blow us all away and that it will be swiftly overshadowed by better movies given that it’s a late August release, but it’s still a darn good movie that isn’t like anything else we’ve gotten so far this year and. Sure, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and BlacKkKlansman all dealt with social issues pertaining to the current struggles we face today and I’d say that all three of them are ultimately better films than this one, but there’s certainly still room for something like this to be made and I think they did a fine job of doing it even if it has a few rough spots along the way. I’d recommend going to see this for sure especially with the films out right now are either in their third or fourth week already or are new but don’t look particularly promising. Heck, if the Oscar Bait this year is any worse than it’s been in years prior, we’ll probably be BEGGING for this one to pick up a few awards, though they’ll probably go to Black Panther; even that new one they’re making up for no clear reason.