Can a person do evil things in the course of their hum-drum job without actually being evil? That was the question historian Hannah Arendt famously posed in the New Yorker, detailing the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. She declared the bland bureaucrat "terrifyingly normal" and dubbed his actions "the banality of evil."
Ben Kingsley's performance in Operation Finale, which opens Wednesday, channels this impression. It's especially chilling when his character is faced with Oscar Isaac's moral outrage as Peter Malkin, the Israeli Mossad agent who captures Eichmann hiding in plain sight in Argentina.
Eichmann was called the architect of the Final Solution, the man who made the trains run on time and orchestrated the killing of more than 6 million people. He tried to cast himself as a bureaucrat caught up in a system in a country he loved. Unlike other top Nazi officers, he escaped after the war and lived a fairly normal life in Argentina until he was discovered.
This true story of one of the most daring spy capers in history unfolded this past summer for visitors of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, where the artifacts and declassified spy materials were laid out in an enthralling exhibit. Its curator, retired Mossad agent Avner Avraham, served as a consultant on the film.
Kingsley as Eichmann shrugs off his crimes. "Our work was paperwork." And he talks of higher-ups urging him to save his country. He's shown doting on his wife and taking his young child to look at trains going by, which echoes the trains he scheduled to move millions to their deaths.
The duality of what is good takes on many layers in the film. "A bullet would be easier," one Israeli agent grouses as they set up a safe house to hide Eichmann. And another questions, "Why make him famous? Let's put him down like the mad dog he is." Putting him on trial is considered the moral high ground.
But, but, but … The plot to kidnap Eichmann violated all kinds of international laws. The new government of Israel got a substantial tip that Eichmann was living with his family in Argentina and was working for Mercedes-Benz. But they didn't trust the Argentine government and worried that Eichmann, like so many other escaped Nazis before him, would be tipped off and flee before he could be captured legally.
So the Mossad team, using the cover of Argentina's 150th anniversary celebration, sneaked in agents with the plan of bringing him to Israel to stand trial instead of shooting him like a dog. They break some laws in one country to set justice in motion in another.
Having seen the St. Petersburg exhibit, you might know what's coming next. But Matthew Orton's script takes a break from all the spy caper business when the team is told after they've captured their prey that they can't leave for Israel right away and have to hide in the safe house for 10 days. This pause allows for several somber scenes to reflect on the psychological damage and survivors' guilt of the Mossad team.
This is where the Isaac versus Kingsley scenes get electric. "Whom did we take from you, Peter?" Eichmann asks his captor. The question is both paternal and chilling in its curiosity, and the answer is devastating. The face off between the Oscar winner and the charming rising star is worth the price of admission.
But this rest stop in the safe house is also where the movie, directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) hits the brakes too hard. The action hadn't quite reached nail-biting level yet, and the drama doesn't get the room it needs either.
A fake Argo-like airport escape with dangers that never really happened serves its cinematic arc. But then the movie only glosses over the most riveting part of the Eichmann exhibit at the museum: the worldwide broadcast of his trial that brought out testimony from Holocaust survivors. It was 15 years after the war and many had not even told their children the horrors they had experienced.
Still, in a year that saw neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, a movie that recalls how everyday bureaucrats played a part in the Holocaust is a worthy reminder of the banality of evil. And maybe it's a good reminder that it's not so ordinary after all.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at email@example.com. Follow @SharonKWn.