To guide your summer getaway book selections, try this formula: E=FB²
Don’t expect exciting spy thriller action in Operation Finale, a true-life drama about how Israeli secret agents flew to Argentina to kidnap Adolf Eichmann, the so-called “architect of the Final Solution.” As exciting as the plot sounds, the most energetic moment in this movie involves one clumsy kidnapping scene.
For the rest of the 122-minute movie, you’ll see a blindfolded Nazi napping, eating crackers, and doing squats in a makeshift prison while his captors wait for him to agree to a trial—and that seems to be the whole point: How is it that someone who helped ship 6 million Jews to their deaths can appear so unremarkable? And how do you bring such a man to justice?
The year is 1960, and someone sends a tip to the Mossad that Adolf Eichmann is hiding under a fake identity in Argentina. Mossad sends a team of spies to extradite Eichmann to Israel for trial. To do so, the Israelis need to enter Argentina with fake passports, hide him from the officials who safeguarded him, and somehow ferry him out without drawing suspicion.
It’s a messy international affair, but not as messy as the internal conflict stewing within the Mossad agents over their mission. One evening as they sit eating dinner, they ask each other whom they had lost to the Holocaust, and one agent chills everyone into silence when he reveals, “I’m the only one left.”
They wonder why they’re sacrificing their own safety to bring Eichmann out alive in one piece so he can receive the dignity of a fair trial, where he would undoubtedly defend his atrocities to the world. “Why are we making him famous?” one agent growls. “We should put him down like a mad dog!”
One of them is Peter Malkin (played with great intensity by Oscar Isaac), who still has nightmares about the murder of his sister and her children. It takes every ounce of self-will not to throttle Eichmann as he peacefully sleeps in his bed in his pajamas, but he needs to convince Eichmann to sign an official document agreeing to a trial in Jerusalem. To do so, Peter decides to appeal to Eichmann’s humanity—that is, if he has one.
An Israeli court psychiatrist who interviewed Eichmann before his 1961 trial once proclaimed him a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Indeed, Eichmann (played with steely brilliance by Ben Kingsley) seems utterly, pathetically human: He’s a nearsighted, aging factory worker living with his wife and two sons in the dusty suburbia of Buenos Aires. For his wedding anniversary, he buys fresh flowers for his wife, a plump, beaming, matronly housewife who brews tea for guests.
One night in a stakeout, Peter watches the Nazi clutch his blond infant son at the window as they watch the train whoosh by—and it disturbs Peter to see the image of evil reside in the posture of a loving father.
Nevertheless, Peter believes he can keep his cool as he tells Eichmann his name, shares a cigarette with him, and helps him shave. And thus begins a cat-and-mouse psychological battle—but it’s uncertain who’s the cat and who’s the mouse: Peter tries to convince Eichmann to agree to facing the jury in Israel; Eichmann insists that he was just following orders, so why should he bear the “mistakes” of his country? “We’re all animals,” he tells Peter.
Operation Finale plays the same psychological game on the audience: Should Eichmann gain sympathy from us? Dare we, should we, buy his reasoning that any individual—including us—would have done the same if placed in his shoes? What if evil doesn’t just sound like the lunatic cackles of a serial killer who delights in his cruelty—but the logical, emotionless excuses of an ordinary-looking man who till his death refuses to repent and admit his sins?