‘Operation Finale’ and Israel’s improbable transformation

Editor’s Note: Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and distinguished fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. And he is the author of the forthcoming book, “The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment,” in addition to other nonfiction and fiction titles. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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One advantage to living in polarized times is that it makes spy movies easier to accept on their typically black-and-white terms. Good versus evil is allowed only one natural outcome. The action on the screen is important, for sure — but moral clarity is important, too.

Thane Rosenbaum

That’s the central ambition behind director Chris Weitz’s new film, “Operation Finale,” starring Sir Ben Kingsley. It is no ordinary spy thriller. In depicting the 1960 abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina to stand trial in Israel for his role as one of the masterminds of the Holocaust, it deals with an event that forever shaped the Israeli psyche, but it also makes a statement about how evil can be shown on the silver screen.

As a spy movie, it arrives at the right time. Counterespionage has never been more exciting. The Jason Bourne films, and the Israeli-import Netflix series, “Fauda,” are electric in their intensity. James Bond is replenished every few years from a blokes’ gallery of ever-younger British-accented men.

But before James Bond ever ordered a martini or crashed an Aston Martin on screen, the Israeli intelligence agencies, Mossad and Shin Bet, pulled off what was then, and perhaps still is today, the most impossible mission of all: the story of Eichmann’s kidnapping in Buenos Aires and his subsequent trial in Jerusalem, which dominated world headlines for two years before he was convicted and hanged in Israel.

The audacity of the Eichmann operation no doubt influenced the making of movies about espionage and counterespionage throughout the heady days of the Cold War. It also shaped the world’s opinion of this tiny country, populated with Holocaust survivors from 12 years before, now displaying the derring-do and sheer chutzpah that dazzled even the CIA and KGB.

Yet surprisingly, the story itself of how Israel brought international justice home to its own courthouse, and the Holocaust to the world’s attention, has received scant cinematic treatment.

Until now.

This finely directed suspense drama has the added benefit of being relevant to today’s geopolitics. The capture and prosecution of Eichmann became a national metaphor for the state of Israel, transforming Jews from victims to avengers in less than a generation. Israel may have been created in 1948, but it symbolically announced its arrival as a nation by kidnapping Eichmann. The trial, for its own part, reminded the world of the moral urgency of a Jewish homeland. “Operation Finale” conveys all the political and emotional drama of Israel’s transformation, which owed so much to the Eichmann affair, but places it in the context of an exhilarating spy and psychological thriller.

Additionally, the film provides contemporary audiences with a reminder that targeted assassinations are not the only way to achieve international justice. President Obama declared that “justice has been done” after the killing of Osama bin Laden. There was no day in court offered to the mastermind of 9/11. Israel, likewise, could have clandestinely rid the world of Eichmann with a single bullet and avoided the condemnation it received for having abducted a citizen of a sovereign state. And even after Eichmann, especially in the aftermath of the massacre of its Olympic team at Munich in 1972, the Israelis, too, resorted to targeted assassinations to achieve justice.

Eichmann was the architect of the Final Solution. Operation Finale, the actual name the Israelis gave to the mission to apprehend Eichmann, was conceived as a coda to the Holocaust, a way of bringing justice to the Jewish people by putting the Holocaust itself on trial for the world to see. Before these events occurred, the slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime was not nearly as widely known as it is today. The Nuremberg trials, convened immediately after the war and which put officials and leaders of the Nazi regime on trial, were not especially focused on Jewish victims or voices. The evidence before those courts relied primarily on incriminating Nazi documents, and not on survivor testimony.

The Eichmann trial, by contrast, produced 14 weeks of televised national anguish, with the harrowing testimonies of 100 survivors forming the heart of the prosecution’s case.

Kingsley, as Eichmann, is clearly playing against type in “Operation Finale.” After all, he has portrayed Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List,” famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in “Murderers Among Us,” and even Anne Frank’s father in a television drama.

Eichmann, the epitome of the anti-hero, was the embodiment of Nazi evil, literally the man who made the trains to Auschwitz run on time. How does a human being, even someone who is a professional actor and Oscar winner, convincingly depict a monster?

The film takes the position that the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man,” the legal term of art created during the Nuremberg trials to establish the crime of mass murder, makes no mention of monsters. It is groundbreaking in its attempt to render Adolf Eichmann in human terms, an effort that is, by definition, infinitely complicated.

With “Operation Finale,” Weitz and Kingsley, along with Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, one of the key Mossad intelligence agents who, in signing on with the mission, was also seeking redress for the murder of his sister and her children during the Holocaust, are making a larger point about humanity itself.

Yes, Eichmann may have had the most Jewish blood on his hands, but unpleasant though it may be to accept, he was also a human being.

In the movie, with a touch of artistic license, Eichmann develops a curious relationship with Malkin during nightly talk sessions in the safe house. While other moments offer more conventional cloak and dagger fare, it is this mental chess game between Eichmann and Malkin that showcases a very different kind of tradecraft, one in which Eichmann emerges as a loving father, and even a somewhat empathic friend who understands the depth of Malkin’s loss and professes to have been merely a “cog” in the machinery of murder.

Here the film adopts the premises of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Arendt introduced the concept that evil is, actually, quite ordinary. Everyone is capable of becoming complicit in a debased moral order. It is the system that is inherently evil, not its participants.

Of course, at trial Eichmann clearly showed himself to be an unrepentant anti-Semite, proud to have set in motion the most efficient means of killing Jews. The man was no cog; he was very much in command.

And that’s why he’s still the only person in Israel’s history to have received the death penalty since 1948.

Of course, watching an Eichmann possessed of evil that was not banal would be an altogether different movie. Weitz and Kingsley weren’t making “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or even “Inglourious Basterds” – with their Nazis as menacing cartoons. What they had in mind was a monster of evident complexity – morally twisted, but human nonetheless.

Depicting Eichmann as he really was may have been more faithful to the man even if not to the conceit of the movie. “Operation Finale” is not a documentary, after all. It has car chase scenes and breathtaking action sequences. There’s even a love interest. A humanized Eichmann, frankly, gives Kingsley a much richer part to play.

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    Arendt’s thesis, and this film’s point of view, can be comforting even if false. Blurring the line between good and evil is not the message Hollywood usually likes to leave its audiences. But Israel’s improbable transformation may have given Weitz a new idea.