In May 1960, Israeli secret agents captured Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi and one of the architects of the Final Solution, who had been hiding in Argentina. His subsequent trial, held in a Jerusalem courtroom and open to the public, was a crucial event in the global reckoning with the Holocaust. It was chronicled by Hannah Arendt in her controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which popularized the phrase “banality of evil” in reference to the supposedly gray, bureaucratic personality Eichmann exhibited on the stand.
“Operation Finale,” an earnest and effective dramatization of the efforts to find Eichmann in South America and convey him to Israel, instead emphasizes the evil of evil. And also, secondarily and not always comfortably, its charm.
This is partly because Eichmann is played by Ben Kingsley, who is capable of suppressing neither his natural charisma nor the impish aspects of it. At one point, while he is in Israeli custody but before he and his captors have left Argentina, Eichmann shares a bit of Nazi humor — a joke at the expense of Hitler, Goebbels and Goring — which elicits a guffaw from one of the Israelis, followed by a spasm of shame. How could anyone find such a monster funny? But of course the people responsible for great evil do not cease to be human, and thus to provoke ordinary human responses, including laughter and empathy.
There is nothing banal about that, and “Operation Finale,” directed by Chris Weitz from a script by Matthew Orton, tackles the ethical puzzles and psychological agonies facing the Mossad operatives who must not only hunt down Eichmann but also look after him as the plans for extraction start to go awry. They are all haunted by memories of loved ones killed by the Germans and determined to seek justice rather than simple revenge. That makes their mission an especially agonizing one, especially for Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a not always by-the-book Nazi hunter whose swagger masks a deep and restless sensitivity.
Peter flashes back to the death of his sister, Fruma (Rita Pauls), killed along with her children by Nazis during the war. Those recollections, and images of Eichmann supervising the mass slaughter of innocents, serve as cautionary ballast, inoculating the audience against being too caught up in a suspenseful, entertaining wartime thriller. Eichmann’s connections to extreme right-wing elements in the Argentine military and political establishments place the Israelis in extra peril. Their action not only challenges legal and diplomatic norms, but also inflames the wrath of local anti-Semites.
Some of them, Peter in particular, also risk a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome as they try to persuade their prisoner to sign a document formalizing his surrender to them. Tensions arise within the group, which Eichmann tries to exploit. Not everyone likes Peter, and one of his colleagues, Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) is also his former lover.
The performances are as solid as the writing and direction. Isaac and Laurent have the innate, casual glamour of old-fashioned movie stars. Nick Kroll and Greg Hill are especially fine as fellow agents who serve, in different ways, as foils for Peter. Weitz’s work is smooth and unshowy, except for a distracting bit of homage to Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” (and to Weitz’s mother, Susan Kohner, who appeared in that film).
The period atmosphere extends beyond the vintage cars, endless cigarettes and pleated wool trousers. “Operation Finale” resembles a drama from the first golden age of television, back in the ’50s. Its seriousness is more than a little square, and its tackling of weighty moral issues feels more conscientious than truly challenging.
It’s a story very worth telling, told pretty well, with self-evident virtues and obvious limitations. Viewers who see it out of a sense of duty will find some pleasure in the bargain. Call it the banality of good.
(PG-13, 2:06; in English and Spanish, with English subtitles)