Operation Finale, now in theaters, is a morality study masquerading as an espionage thriller.
The plot revolves around the capture of notorious Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann and his dramatic 1960 extraction to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. But the most gripping moments of the movie take place in a single gloomy room where Eichmann talks with one of his captors, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac). The most engaging parts of this so-called spy thriller could be boiled down to a two-man play.
The two talk for one simple reason: The Israelis need Eichmann to sign, essentially, a permission slip—one required of the Israeli’s plane home. The airline wants to know that Eichmann is leaving Argentina of his own free will, and a signed document will be proof of that. Eichmann, knowing that his trip to Israel will likely be a terminal one, seems understandably reluctant to sign.
While most of the Israeli operatives want to break Eichmann down to get him to sign, Peter takes a different tack: He tries to befriend Eichmann instead—even though the war criminal was the architect of the Holocaust and the death of 6 million Jews. Peter treats Eichmann with a respect that Eichmann didn’t accord his own countless victims. And so the two began something between a verbal dance and wrestling match, slowly getting to know each other as they probe for weakness.
To me, it almost felt like a dialogue with the devil.
In the movies, evil can be quite the diva. In horror flicks, demons possess victims with all the subtlety of a plane crash. In thrillers, the bad guys chew more scenery than a herd of starving goats. Look at almost any of our favorite popcorn munchers, and you’ll see a villain enthralled with his or her own villainy. When the Joker or Darth Vader arrives, it’s like when Dolly shows up at Harmonia Gardens: There’s hardly room on the stage for anyone else.
But often evil is far more understated, far in the mold of someone like Eichmann, who inspired the phrase “the banality of evil.”
In Kingsley’s hands, Eichmann embodies much of what we’d consider diabolical evil. Every now and then he lets the mask slip from his face and show the hatred underneath, but for the most part, he’s cool. Understated. Frighteningly, disarmingly normal, even as he subtly sows seeds of doubt and mischief as he deflects attention from himself.
At one moment, Eichmann claims he was simply a bureaucrat doing his job, punching a clock like so many of us do. At another, he claims he’s just a patriot. “My job was simple: Save the country I love from being destroyed,” he tells Peter. “Is your job any different?”
But he’s a sly one, too. “This guy convinced rabbis to load the trains themselves,” Peter tells his compatriots, warning them of Eichmann’s charisma. “And not by force.” He’s a monster who was responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews, including the families of many of his captors. And yet when he cracks a joke, some laugh.
He’s a master debater, too, as the devil is often portrayed. When Peter talks to Eichmann about gassing Jews to death, Eichmann counters by pointing to Israel’s secret atomic bomb program. When Peter says that the Germans de-humanized the Jewish people, Eichmann tells him that “we’re all animals. Some of us have bigger teeth than others.”
In a way, Eichmann is subtly undermining the concept of morality itself. If we’re all animals, after all, we can’t be responsible for what we do. We can’t be held to a higher moral standard. The only rule is eat or be eaten.
In one exchange, Eichmann even echoes A biblical character who represented the banality of evil—the idea that because we’re simply doing our jobs, we can’t be held accountable.
“What is truth?” Eichmann says, just as Pontius Pilate did 2,000 years earlier. “Whose truth?”
We live in a time where truth is constantly called into question. Science is doubted. Vetted journalism is derided as “fake news.” Politicians deny saying things that they’ve been recorded actually saying. Sometimes, it feels as though the world has lost interest in truth. Teeth are what matter.
But truth—ultimate truth—is real. It matters. And perhaps those who apologize for the evils in our midst, who closed our eyes to it or excused it for one reason or another, may one day be called to account.
And perhaps Peter Malkin in Operation Finale shows us how to confront the liars of our own age, too: With civility and respect. Because good, like evil, can be at its most effective when it never raises its voice.