The Screening Room | Two leads bring quiet power to 'Operation Finale'

The Screening Room | Two leads bring quiet power to 'Operation Finale'

Unlike many of the other high-ranking members of the Third Reich, Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, survived World War II. He fled to South America, where he continued to live with his family and get up each morning to enjoy the day, a privilege those put to death because of his machinations were denied.

This only came to an end in 1960, when he was captured by Mossad agents while driving to his home in the suburbs of Buenos Aires.

These events have been covered before in other films, but Chris Weitz's "Operation Finale" takes another approach in recounting them, namely delving more fully into the circumstances that led to Eichmann's capture as well as the background of one particular agent on his heels, Peter Malkin.

While the movie does a fine job recreating the setting up of the operation and the specific events as it played out, the cat-and-mouse game we are privy to between hunter and prey helps distinguish this film from previous productions and provides an all-too-human face to the evil that often dwells in our midst.

Much of the first half of the film hits the notes we've come to expect from military mission movies. The team is assembled — a group of disparate people who come together for a common cause — with special attention given to the past relationship between Malik (Oscar Isaac) and physician Hanna Elian (Melanie Luarant).

While these sections are played as something that must be endured instead of being realized with a bit of flair, the issue of why some would object to this operation comes up and proves fascinating. Though some in power argue that dealing with an issue from the past is a waste of resources, Mossad agent Rafi Eitan (a very fine Nick Kroll) persuades them that this is a necessary step, an opportunity to provide a sense of closure that must be undertaken despite the mission's many difficulties.

Once Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) is taken — after the expected close calls are overcome — the film becomes a fascinating duel between two enemies. While Eichmann is kept in a safehouse until he agrees to sign an agreement for extradition, Malik begins to extend a certain degree of humanity toward him after he sees that interrogation sessions and other methods are proving useless.

As Malik provides him with cigarettes and conversation, and goes so far as to shave him, Eichmann attempts to explain his reasoning behind his past actions, while Malik tries to see him as a person instead of a monster and convince him to agree to stand trial and take responsibility for his actions. That he holds the Nazi responsible for the death of his sister and nephew makes Malik's approach all the more difficult.

These moments are a showcase for Isaac and Kingsley, and both effectively underplay their roles, bringing a quiet power to the struggle for understanding these men undertake. More than a game of cat and mouse, this is an examination of dueling ideologies in which both men struggle to make the other understand their perspective while adhering to their core values. Issues of this import are rarely dealt with in mainstream film, and "Operation Finale" is all the better for it.

The movie would have benefited from a tighter sense of pacing and some judicious editing. Were it 15 to 20 minutes shorter, its impact would have been much stronger. Still, in ending the film with Eichmann's trial and documentary footage, Weitz powerfully underscores the lasting impact of the Nazis' evil, with a nod toward its resurgence today — something that effectively disproves those that would deny these atrocities ever occurred.

'Operation Finale' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Haley Lu Richardson, Greta Scacchi and Peter Strauss.

Directed by Chris Weitz; produced by Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Jason Spire and Isaac; screenplay by Matthew Orton.

An MGM release. 122 minutes. Rated PG-13 (disturbing content, violent images, language). At AMC-Champaign and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

"Happytime Murders" an embarrassing display of immaturity (zero stars). There's something very interesting at play in Brian Henson's film, which is really more a temper tantrum than a movie.

Henson, son of the beloved Jim Henson, the trailblazer who created the Muppets, is in a rebellious state of mind, as he seems intent on crapping all over his father's work.

While steps have been taken not to refer to the felt performers that populate the film as Muppets to avoid any confusion with the beloved characters that populate Sesame Street (they're just "puppets"), there's no question that the characters in "Happytime" are his father's creations, and Brian Henson goes out of his way to defile them at every turn.

Take a story from the Raymond Chandler canon, update it and populate it with characters manipulated by hand and you have some notion of the film's plot, such as it is.

Phil Philips (voiced and performed by Bill Barretta) is a puppet with a chip on his shoulder. The only puppet to be hired as a Los Angeles police officer has been trying to live down a tragic incident for years, one that got him thrown off the force. Now a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking private eye, he's been pulled in by the LAPD to help investigate a string of murders.

The cast members of the hit television show "The Happytime Gang" are being killed off one by one, and no one seems to know why. It falls to Philips to solve the case, which is further complicated by his being paired with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

With a little wit and some style (visually, this is the drabbest movie in recent memory), this might have been an engaging spoof, a riff on the established Muppet universe that could have been enjoyed by fans old and new. No such luck — the script by Todd Berger is simply a collection of crude, unimaginative moments intent on shocking the audience; likely the only response will be one of disbelief over how miscalculated this effort truly is.

Puppets' heads are blown off with shotguns — fluff flying everywhere; puppet porn is on display; and there's full-on puppet-on-puppet sex.

Now I'm no prude, and none of this was shocking to me. However, the sheer stupidity that's on display is appalling in its banality and lack of imagination.

Not once did I laugh, though my mouth was agape most of the time at disbelief over what I was forced to endure over the 91 of the most excruciating minutes I've had to spend in a movie theater. Dumb, crass and spiteful, this isn't a movie; it's a teenager's first therapy session on full display.

The film is a disaster on every level, and I couldn't help but think that Brian Henson was giving his father the finger all the way through, as a sense of resentment radiates in waves from off the screen.

Petulant to a fault, what's on display is a son's bitter resentment over not being able to emerge from his father's shadow. Henson seems to have a sense of long-suppressed jealousy over not having been able to break new ground as his father did, and instead of cherishing and honoring that legacy, he seems intent on trashing it. More than anything, "Happytime" proves that those dealing with daddy issues and a mid-life crisis shouldn't be allowed behind a movie camera.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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