I’ll watch Oscar Isaac in anything. Despite his poor choice of roles in the last few years (excluding some stellar Alex Garland collaborations), he genuinely remains the best part of any hot mess he takes part in. Knowing that such a powerful on-screen presence hasn’t been landing the leading roles he deserves to have, it was really exciting to see Isaac get behind the camera and do some production work on his latest film, Operation Finale. To see an artist I admire take action and create roles for himself is admirable to me, so it’s all the more disappointing to tell you that once again the pieces just didn’t fall into place. Operation Finale boasts two powerhouses in Isaac and Kingsley and possesses a poignant tale at its core, but the direction by Chris Weitz feels all too pedestrian and at times, even too incompetent to be substantial.
Set fifteen years after WWII, this period drama follows the true story of Peter Malkin and his Israeli crew who traveled to Argentina to find and extract Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for the transportation of millions of Jewish people to concentration camps. Legally forced to get a signature out of Eichmann in order to transport him out of Argentina to Israel, Malkin must bargain with Eichmann to bring him to trial. It’s an important story about civility, wickedness, suffering, and urgency that Operation Finale presents in an unimaginative fashion – all while stumbling on its message along the way.
Through his lack of narrative and tonal control, Weitz always keeps the audience at a distance. There’s a romantic subplot with Malkin and Hanna (Melanie Laurent) that rushes through the pathos and passion. Similarly, there’s a thread with Sylvia Herman (Haley Lu Richardson) that quickly disappears as the film prioritizes other topics in the second half. These were not inherently bad to include, but there’s no attempt to unify them. Events that could contribute to a unifying theme end up feeling extraneous by the film’s structure, closing off many doors for thematic consistency.
The cinematography work by Javier Asquirresarobe and the production design by David Brisbin have their moments. There’s a striking scene with Eichmann watching a flock of birds against a dusk sky, I enjoyed the cold, cramped feeling of the room he was confined to as he conversed with Malkin, and there was an impressive array of sweaters for Oscar Isaac to sport. It’s a shame so many other technical choices kept me from fully residing within these scenes. The marimba score by Alexander Desplat feels cartoonish and sitcom-like, sucking away any built up dramatic tension. Awkward attempts at humor are made, characters quip at one another as if they were an Avengers film – it’s simply hard to truly feel the weight of the mind games with a despicable Nazi if he’s telling anecdotes about his father on the toilet.
Despite the tonal problems, Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley are simply doing what they do best, which is never a displeasure to watch. There might be a lot of white noise drowning out their excellence, but their scenes together still stand out as the moments where the film seems to work the most. Kingsley plays Eichmann so restrained for the beginning duration of his capture, his vulnerability quickly turning into true manipulative colors. Isaac brings some grief and trauma to the table in Malkin, making their dynamic thrilling when the film decides to let them shine. Often times, their performances are more effective in getting across what the direction is failing to portray (most of the time).
Operation Finale‘s biggest weakness is that it fails to commit to an idea or a stance. Malkin’s story deserved to be analyzed deeper as a perspective on the dangers of nationalism, but it felt like no moment of conclusion was shown. There was already a lack of cohesion with all its side plots, so it felt all the more disjointed when the well-intentioned but silly final scene is on display. What can this event tell us about the present? How did these events tell us about the time period? Weitz’s intentions are too vague to make an impact in the prolonged fight against fascism, and in the end, comes off as centrist and contradictive of the tale being told. At least Oscar Isaac has grey hair in this one.