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All the Write Moves: 'Operation Finale'

September 17, 2018

Presenting the real-life story of how bold Mossad agents snuck into 1960 Argentina and captured fugitive Third Reich officer Adolf Eichmann, Operation Finale is a serviceable thriller with stylistic echoes of 2012’s Argo. Like that picture, Operation Finale employs dramatic license to transform a historical event into a cinematic potboiler. And while Operation Finale doesn’t reach the same heights of excitement and sociopolitical relevance that Argo did, it contains exemplary usage of similar storytelling techniques.

The most obvious correlation is that both films conclude with tense scenes at airports. Additionally, both films involve complex cover stories and risky hideouts. Furthermore, Operation Finale, like Argo, conjures suspense from a foregone conclusion, inasmuch as viewers already know how the story ends. Effective movies of this type always reward close study by screenwriters, because when storytellers don’t have the benefit of working their way toward surprise endings, they must rely on different tools to sustain audience interest.

In the case of Operation Finale, some of that interest stems from the solemnity of the subject matter. After all, Operation Finale is indirectly a Holocaust story, and keeping the memory of that horrific chapter from human history alive is among the noblest pursuits in popular entertainment. Also praiseworthy is the act of celebrating Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who led the mission that resulted in Eichmann’s apprehension. History’s heroes deserve commemoration.

Good intentions, however, don’t always result in good movies, and while Operation Finale is by no measure a great movie, it is indeed a good one—gripping, humane, purposeful, and satisfying. That’s why it’s impressive to learn that Operation Finale is the first produced script for writer Matthew Orton, a newcomer who gained noticed by landing on the UK’s equivalent to the Black List. Based on the evidence of his debut film, he’s off to a strong start.

Atonement

The prologue of Operation Finale takes place in Austria circa 1954, when Malkin (played by Oscar Isaac, who also helped produce the film) leads a mission to capture and kill a fugitive Nazi. This succinct vignette displays both the anxiety of tradecraft and the risks of chasing people who hide under assumed identities.

Malkin charms his way into the home of his target, allowing fellow operatives to seize the man and drag him outside. Then, while Malkin overconfidently confronts the man’s family with “proof” of the man’s crimes, Malkin is shocked to discover that the family includes a son and a daughter, when records indicate the target has two sons. Realizing he’s apprehended the wrong man, Malkin runs outside to prevent tragedy—but his operatives execute the man before Malkin can stop them.

Orton frames this sequence well, because prior to Malkin’s entrance into the target’s home, the man hides two books bearing Nazi swastikas—a simple way of demonstrating that while the man might not be the killer whom Malkin was tasked with finding, he’s a Nazi running from his past. This allows viewers to perceive Malkin as a complicated man pursuing complicated goals—and it also explains Malkin’s later reluctance to murder Eichmann on sight.

As Orton presents him, Malkin is a man committed to justice, not vengeance. The dark irony, of course, is that death is the only possible fate awaiting Eichmann upon delivery to Israel, where he is to stand trial for war crimes. Therefore the prologue of Operation Finale provides not only a brisk character introduction but also a moral context for the entire storyline.

Takeaway: A vivid hero has a wound that needs healing.

The Monster and the Man

Orton also takes great care to render Eichmann (played by Ben Kingsley) as a dimensional character. Although Eichmann was a monster known as “The Architect of the Final Solution,” Orton clearly understood that humanizing Eichmann, to the utmost degree possible, was necessary for potent storytelling.

One scene in particular illustrates how Orton approached this challenge. Early in the story, a young Argentine woman named Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson) meets an attractive young man named Klaus (Joe Alwyn). During their courtship, Sylvia introduces Klaus to her father, Lotar (Peter Strauss), a Holocaust survivor. Klaus proudly declares that he’s the son of Adolf Eichmann, then says that his father died in the war, and that the man raising him is his uncle. Lotar recognizes a lie and sets in motion events leading to the Mossad mission.

It becomes necessary for Sylvia to lay eyes on Eichmann as a first step toward confirming his identity. She does so by contriving a reason to visit Klaus’ home. The first time Sylvia sees Eichmann, he enters the room looking like a doting father, smiling and holding his younger son in his arms. But by the end of the scene, once Klaus dares to contradict Eichmann, the monster inside the man emerges, because Eichmann grabs Klaus by the throat and pins him to the wall.

Thus begins the meticulous process by which Orton presents his interpretation of Eichmann—a killer damned for his crimes, but also a loving family man.

Takeaway: Endowing villains with warm emotions energizes characterization.

History Always Repeats

One of the most fascinating aspects of our strange political moment is seeing commentary on current events appear in unexpected places. For instance, it is unlikely that Orton originally intended for Operation Finale to include commentary on Donald Trump, seeing as how the script first caught attention in 2015, a year before Trump’s election. That said, allusions to the present state of U.S. politics found their way into the script by the time the picture was completed.

Several scenes in Operation Finale feature Eichmann playing mindgames with Malkin during a nine-day sojourn in a safe house, before it becomes possible for Mossad to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina via airplane. Malkin pursues the goal of getting Eichmann to sign a form giving consent for transport to Israel, and Eichmann pursues the opposite goal of convincing Malkin to release him. To this end, Eichmann repeatedly questions the validity of Israeli justice, saying that if he committed German crimes, he should be tried in a German courtroom.

As Eichmann exclaims at one point: “Your lawyers and your lying press will try the man they think they know, not the man you see before you now!”

As references to current events go, this is relatively subtle, so it would be interesting to discover whether the team behind Operation Finale, including American-born director Chris Weitz, guided Orton to reference the Trump era during the rewrite process. Even if not, the parallel is important. Autocratic rulers persuading the public not to believe the press was as dangerous then as it is now.

At their best, historical dramas mine the past for insights (and warnings) about the present. So just as the Mossad agents portrayed in Operation Finale were tasked with adding a triumphant coda to the sorrowful tale of the Jewish experience during World War II, the makers of Operation Finale recognize their responsibility to make connections between the past and the present so viewers don’t regard the Final Solution as a historical anomaly. Left unchallenged, the most insidious forces in human society could easily travel that dark path again.

Consider these lines given to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale), who speaks to the Mossad agents before their departure for Argentina: “The book of memory still lies open, and you... are the hand that holds the pen.”

Takeaway: Good historical stories have timeless relevance.

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