Thursday, September 27, 2018

Operation Finale: Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann

Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in Operation Finale (2018).

Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazis’ Final Solution, in Operation Finale – which tells the tale of his 1960 capture in Buenos Aires at the hands of Mossad and Shin Bet – showcases the virtues of the British classical approach to acting. It’s a marvel. His line readings have a shivering preciseness, but there’s an exquisitely layered richness to them, too, like plucked strings that release a multitude of embedded sounds, many of them surprising, some of them mysterious. It’s like a concert by a musical genius who constantly scrambles your expectations by shifting tempo and articulating passages in ways no has thought of before. When, imprisoned in a safe house on the outskirts of the city while his flight to Jerusalem to stand trial is delayed, Eichmann asks Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), the Shin Bet agent who effected the kidnaping, for information on the well-being of his family, you don’t know how to read what sounds like pleading in his tone, because he’s such a master manipulator that he could be softening up the man he refers to as “Herr Captor” – appealing to his humanity in order to get concessions out of him. Even the inflection he gives to that phrase, “Herr Captor,” is hard to interpret: its respectfulness, its acknowledgement of who has the power, is complicated with slivers of wit and something that sounds like it’s just on the edge of derisiveness.

Malkin is aware of Eichmann’s potent charm, so he has to weigh every request (to learn his captor’s name, for example), no matter how apparently reasonable, for fear of getting caught in his trap. The way Kingsley plays him, Eichmann is constantly engaged in a cat-and-mouse game, his strategies are always clandestine, and his only resource is language – not just his words, but also his elusive tone. Listening to him, I suddenly remembered how brilliant he was in the otherwise unimpressive 1983 movie of Betrayal because of all the changes he was able to ring on Harold Pinter’s dialogue. In one scene in Operation Finale he gets Peter to tell him whom he lost in the Holocaust, and when Peter reveals that his sister and her children were killed, Eichmann has the nerve to offer his sympathy; his attitude all along has been that he was merely executing someone else’s orders, but here he sounds more like an outsider reviewing the facts of a case that just happened to be brought to his attention. Eventually – just before he’s taken to the airport – he uses the information he’s pulled out of Peter against him, and the monstrousness of that moment, when for the first time in the movie he takes full ownership of the Jewish genocide with a mixture of pride and disdain, is both revealing and unrevealing at the same time because we can’t work out what his motivation is for doing so.

Mélanie Laurent, Oscar Isaac, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov and Greg Hill in Operation Finale.

In the movie’s best scenes, Oscar Isaac counters Kingsley beautifully – when Peter feeds the still-blindfolded Eichmann a sandwich, bite by bite, or when he shaves him, his disgust for this man hovering over the act along with Eichmann’s vulnerability. (Kingsley is so amazing that we can also feel how Eichmann is leveraging Peter’s awareness of that vulnerability; he’s almost daring his jailer to take advantage of it.) Isaac is a major, still-young actor – he turns forty in a few months – who can both summon a rough-hewn heroic quality, the side he’s been showing as Poe Dameron in the recent Star Wars entries, and complicate it, even turn it inside out, as he’s done in pictures like Inside Llewyn Davis, In Secret and The Two Faces of January. What limits his performance in Operation Finale is that Matthew Orton, the writer, has added scenes about Peter’s personal life, especially his romantic relationship with the only woman on the abduction team, Dr. Hanna Elian (a composite character), who administers the drugs to knock Eichmann out whenever they have to move him, that are banal and extraneous. (The talented Mélanie Laurent is wasted in the part.) And the other scenes focused on Peter, where he imagines the deaths of his sister and her children at the hands of the Nazis, are clumsy and confusing.

The director, Chris Weitz, does better with the straight suspense sequences, though it’s only when Kingsley is on screen that the movie gets away from what’s essentially a melodramatic rendering of the story of Eichmann’s capture and transport out of Argentina. The scenes where we see the Nazis hiding out in Buenos Aires under the protection of the government and police force – including Eichmann’s son Klaus (Joe Alwyn) – are creepy but lack gravitas; the characters reminded me of the Nazis in Hitchcock’s Notorious, but that was intended as a romantic melodrama and not as a dramatization of a historical story. As Sylvia Herrmann, who falls for Klaus but becomes a spy for the Israeli abduction team when she and her father (Peter Strauss) realize who he is, Haley Lu Richardson brings an element of personalized terror that deepens these episodes somewhat. And Greta Scacchi adds some unexpected colors to her few scenes as Eichmann’s wife Vera. Among Eichmann’s captors, aside from Isaac only the superb character actor Michael Aronov, memorable in the production of J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo at Lincoln Center, as Zvi Aharoni and Lior Raz as Isaac Harel, both representing Mossad (Harel was its leader), are distinctive.

Eichmann’s capture has been dramatized in two plays, Edward Anhalt’s The Man in the Glass Booth and Evan M. Wiener’s Captors, and Captors is more intriguing than Operation Finale. But the movie is engrossing and often exciting, and it skirts the ridiculous, which you couldn’t say for the last mainstream Jewish-themed mainstream movie, Disobedience, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as Orthodox lesbians. Actually, there is one element in Operation Finale that one might call ridiculous – Ben Kingsley’s make-up. Kingsley’s seventy-four; Eichmann was in his mid-fifties in 1960, and in the unfortunate flashback to an episode where he oversees the mass shooting of Jews in a common grave he’s supposed to be in his thirties. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the opportunity to see this towering actor in such a challenging role, but the make-up job really makes you wince. At least I would have found some dramatic substitute for that flashback; even Kingsley’s acting can’t cover its awkwardness.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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