Not everything works in "Operation Finale"-- the historical drama about the capture of fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann -- but enough does to form a functional spy thriller and, more importantly, an intriguing character study of two men shaped by hatred. Eichmann is one, portrayed to great effect by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley; legendary Mossad agent Peter Malkin, as played by Oscar Isaac, is the other. The circumstances of Eichmann's capture and transport to Jerusalem to stand trial for war crimes allow for multiple tête-à-têtes between two very fine thespians, reason enough to revisit the Eichmann affair.
In 1960, when most of the film unfolds, each man has sublimated his hatred, projecting an amiable demeanor that allows him to go about his business. Malkin's espionage career has taken a hit from an earlier misfire in the hunt for Eichmann, depicted in the film's opening sequence, but he's still in the game. Eichmann lives calmly in Buenos Aires, with his wife and children, a workaday job, and a secret social life in the embrace of worshipful Argentinian Nazis.
Matthew Orton's screenplay notes how a Jewish family stumbled upon Eichmann's son Klaus (Joe Alwyn), leading operatives from Mossad and Shin Bet to "the architect of the Final Solution." The mission parameters are clear: under the top-secret direction of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (British master thespian Simon Russell Beale, in a single-scene walk-on), Malkin and company are to "catch and extract" Eichmann, rather than put a very satisfying bullet in his head. The end game is very public justice for the highest-ranking perpetrator of the Holocaust and, with it, perhaps some healing for the murders of 6 million European Jews.
But if Ben-Gurion has his eye on the big picture ("For the first time in history, we will judge our executioner"), one Mossad agent sums up the emotional response to this opportunity: "We should be putting him down like a mad dog." Keeping that instinct in check is no easy feat, a tension "Operation Finale" consistently dramatizes. Woven throughout the mission are variant visions of the death of Malkin's sister Fruma, some of them incorporating Eichmann -- for Malkin has only the sketchiest details of her demise.
As the film's protagonist, Isaac (who also co-produces) skillfully conveys Malkin's hurt intelligence, and charm (he has a romantic history with the doctor -- a composite character played by Mélanie Laurent -- charged with drugging Eichmann to get him out of the country undetected). But the film hits its stride once Malkin and Eichmann must deal with each other in a subdued but intriguing mind game as the team awaits safe passage and attempts to get Eichmann to sign all-important extraction papers.
Wisely, Kingsley doesn't play Eichmann as a cardboard villain, instead keeping a tight rein even on the little tics designed to make our skin crawl and prioritizing the swirl of strategies and feelings racing through a captive who has a pretty good idea how this will end. So do we, so it's no small feat on the parts of Orton and director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") that "Operation Finale" carries anything like suspense. Some of the scripting and staging proves clunky, and the climax gets a slight "improvement"-to-history punch-up, but by insisting upon the complexity of the human animal and only sparingly reaching for action beats and lyrical notes, the filmmakers largely escape cliché.