T.S. Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruelest month. For movie fans, it’s August. Horrible, terrible, awful August, crumbling film aficionados’ hopes like a junkyard car crusher squashing an old Ford van.
Maybe it’s the end-of-summer vibe, keeping people away from theaters for one last run at the beach, that makes studios send us their dregs. We’ve already been besieged by a Mark Wahlberg spy movie for sadomasochistic lunkheads and an R-rated Melissa McCarthy erotic detective yarn with puppets made of, well, yarn. Neither contributes any value to society, other than conclusively proving that the actors should find new agents, stat.
Where to begin about the remarkably flawed “Operation Finale”? This promising, high-concept, high-profile drama, based on events of genuine historical importance, has brought summer’s end down a tiny bit more.
The film recounts the 1960 raid when a half-dozen agents of the Israeli Security Service illegally abducted Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. They smuggled him from his secret life as a citizen of Argentina, moving him to Israel to stand trial on television, with the whole world watching.
It had such potential, and top-level stars.
Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, a deeply moral Nazi hunter. Ben Kingsley makes Eichmann snide and full of self-justication yet vulnerable, more interesting than an unequivocal villain. The ever enchanting Mélanie Laurent plays Hanna, a physician and sometime spy who once was Malkin’s lover.
Think about the danger, the suspense, the impending violence, the poignant drama of that secret mission. On second thought, don’t, because the film doesn’t pay any thought to it, either. Without a cogent plot or compelling action, it’s like a long story told to you by the least interesting person in the bar.
The script, while clumsy, isn’t a lazy piece of work. It’s not blind to some challenging questions about a time when fascism was prematurely assumed to be defeated forever. It makes several pointed critiques of the Catholic Church, whose wartime relationship with Nazism was ambiguous at best.
The most exciting scene comes at the beginning, as Malkin and several fellow agents visit a rural chalet in search of a fugitive Nazi officer. His partners pull the man of the house away from his wife, small children and library of Third Reich reading matter.
Malkin remains inside with the mother, telling her that they have clear proof her husband is their guilty party. Then some of those facts clash with details in plain sight. Before you can say collateral damage, Malkin has to confront good goals producing ugly consequences. Having lost his beloved sister and her children to monstrous killers, he values the importance of keeping Israel’s vengeance strikes within clear moral lines. It’s a smoothly paced, nuanced meditation on the nature of warfare, outshining every contrived, one-dimensional minute that follows.
The film is directed by Chris Weitz, whose Hollywood work is a baffling soup of OK comedies in different tones (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”), so-so but ambitious fantasy (“The Golden Compass,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”) and screenwriting for hire. He has never attempted a project like this. He wasn’t ready for it.
The film is the antithesis of tension. Weitz stages long, lackluster scenes of our heroes driving around Buenos Aires in vintage cars and doing tedious detective work. He gives us a moment of would-be suspense when Eichmann doesn’t step off the bus the spies expected to bring him into their grip. When he arrives on the next bus just seconds later, it’s treated like an unbelievable miracle. For half the film they hold him in their hiding place, debating the unclear legality of his capture and waiting for an escape flight. It plays like “Argo” on sedatives.
Still, even a terrible film can have an unforgettable scene. The one that stood out for me shows Kingsley, bound and blindfolded, seated in front of Isaac at dinnertime, speechlessly popping his mouth open for feeding again and again like a baby bird. It’s an image that will take you off your popcorn.
Go for a swim instead. You’ll be glad you did.