Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Operation Finale (2018)



                        Adolf Eichmann was the biggest Nazi fish that got away after WWII.  He infamously was in charge of transporting Jews to the concentration camps.  Unfortunately, his role was not well known until the Nuremberg Trials made him a most wanted man.  He managed to escape Europe and ended up in Argentina.  Eventually discovered, he was brought to Israel for a famous televised trial.  “Operation Finale” tells the story of the mission to abduct him and bring him to justice.  It is partly based on the nonfiction book Eichmann in My Hands by Peter Malkin.  Malkin is the main character in the movie, along with Eichmann.  The movie is directed by Chris Weitz whose father was a German Jew who escaped Germany in 1933.  He spent some years in Great Britain and then came to the U.S. where he served in the OSS during WWII.  He later wrote books including biographies of some Nazi leaders like Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Chris would proofread his father’s books.  He brought thirty-year Mossad veteran Avner Avraham in as technical adviser.  The movie was filmed in Argentina.  The movie theater where Sylvia first meets Klaus Eichmann was the actual theater where the real figures met.  In the movie, the film that is playing is “Imitation of Life” starring Weitz’ mother Susan Kohner.

                        The movie opens with the claim that with the suicides of Hitler, Goering, and Himmler, Eichmann was “the remaining mastermind of the Holocaust”.  Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as a Nazi hunter in Austria in 1954.  Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) is living in Argentina under the name Peter Klement and is working at a Mercedes-Benz plant.  He lives outside Buenos Aires in an isolated farm house with his wife, young son, and adopted son Klaus (Joe Alwyn).   The Israelis have no inkling of his whereabouts until Klaus goes on a date with a girl named Sylvia.  On visiting Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss), Klaus reveals the identity of his father.  Lotar Hermann is a concentration camp survivor and he contacts the authorities and the information is passed on to Mossad in Israel.  Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) is chosen to head up the project.  He chooses Malkin to head the team of abductors.  Malkin’s ex-girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) will go along to sedate Eichmann.  The plan is to positively identify Eichmann, kidnap him, bring him to a safe house, and then fly him to Israel on an El Al airliner.  It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that not everything goes according to plan.

                        “Operation Finale” is a well-crafted history lesson.  It combines the Holocaust and espionage subgenres.  The narrative is fairly straight forward and includes the usual cloak and dagger aspects of a spy movie.  The Holocaust references come through flashbacks.  Malkin’s character development involves flashbacks (really more nightmares) about the fate of his sister and her three children who died in the Holocaust.  He imagines various ways they may have died, including being placed in a poison gas van.  These scenes are effective in developing Malkin’s motivation.  How will he justify keeping this monster alive long enough to trial?  Isaac is excellent as Malkin.  He does not overplay the revenge motive.  Malkin is a professional and not even the team member who most questions the humane treatment of Eichmann.  The most indelible scenes are when Malkin and Eichmann talk as Malkin tries to convince the man responsible for the death of his sister to sign a document agreeing to go to Israel for trial.  These scenes are reminiscent of “Downfall” as they tend to humanize Eichman as that movie humanized Hitler.  To its credit, whenever “Operation Finale” has you thinking maybe he was “just following orders”, it follows with a flashback that proves he was more than just a clerk.  Kingsley is empathetic and menacing as Eichmann.  He carried a picture of Elie Wiesel to remind him what was at stake. The rest of the cast is very good.  Melanie Laurent is thrown in as Malkin’s love interest, but is not given much to do other than provide a female for the team.  It’s fun to watch Nick Kroll in a dramatic role and he is fine.

                        The movie does not really break new ground.  The plot is standard for this type of movie.  There is suspense, but it is dampened by the fact that you know they will succeed and you suspect it has been enhanced through artistic license (see below).  It has some clich├ęs like redemption for the roguish Malkin.  There is some artificial dysfunction between Malkin and the orthodox interrogator and with the “let’s just kill him” agent.  The ex-girlfriend dynamic is mercifully rote.
 
                        The reason to watch this movie is for the history lesson which is done entertainingly.  Although it takes some artistic license for entertainment purposes, the movie is strong in historical accuracy.  It is not a docudrama.  The acting sets it apart from that type of movie.  Everyone knows about the Holocaust and the movie simply reminds us of the horror of it, but it is mainly focused on one of the great detective stories of the 20th Century.  The trial of Eichmann (which is just post-scripted in the movie) brought the Nuremberg Trials to a worldwide television audience.  By the way, Netflix streaming has a good movie on the trial called “The Eichmann Show”.  What “Operation Finale” does is bring Eichmann’s story to a 21st Century audience.

GRADE  =  B

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   The movie does not make clear how Eichmann ended up in Argentina, although it is clear that it was Argentina because of its pro-Nazi government.  In reality, Eichmann was captured by U.S. forces at the end of WWII and put in a prison camp but he had a false identity that allowed him to blend in as a generic prisoner.  When he discovered that he was about to be discovered, he escaped from a work detail and assumed a new identity.  He bounced around Europe until he was able to get documents through Nazi sympathizers to get to Argentina.  He arrived in 1950 as Peter Klement.  His wife and sons came in 1952.  The movie accurately depicts his family.  After a series of low-paying jobs he did get a job at Mercedes-Benz.  In 1960, they moved to the house on Garibaldi street and he did ride a bus to work. 

                        Eichman was not really infamous until Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, ratted him out at the Nuremberg Trials.  Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal learned from a letter that he had been seen in Buenos Aires, but the trail was cold until in 1956.  Lotar Hermann (who had escaped Dachau after being severely beaten and losing sight in one eye) determined that Peter Klement was Eichmann through talking to his daughter Sylvia’s boyfriend Klaus.  Sylvia did go to Eichmann’s house to confirm this.  Hermann contacted the prosecutor general of Hesse, Germany with the information and Fritz Bauer passed the information to Mossad in 1957.  Prime Minister Ben-Gurion personally ordered the abduction project.  The team was headed by Rafi Eitan, although he was skeptical at first, unlike in the movie.  The team arrived in 1960 and put Eichmann under surveillance similar to the film.  The capture was very close to the cinematic reenactment with the not-surprising exception that the second bus was actually a half hour later.  They spent nine days at the safe house and the big stumbling block was getting Eichmann to sign the agreement to allow himself to be taken to Israel for trial.  Malkin did talk him into it after several one-on-one conversations. He later admitted that the conversations caused him to realize Eichmann was a human being, not a monster.  I doubt there was the dysfunction with the main interrogator Zvi Aharoni or a moment when one of the team almost killed Eichmann.  One of the team members was a doctor who sedated Eichmann, but he was male.  The Hanna character is fictional, but Malkin is fairly represented.  He did lose a sister and her children in the war.  They died at Auschwitz.  Malkin was one of Mossad’s greatest agents.  He was also a good artist, as shown.
 
                        Not surprisingly, the movie goes off the historical rails in its attempt at a rousing finish.  They did disguise Eichmann as an airline crew member and he was sedated to look drunk, but the egress was actually suspense-free.  They did not leave the safe house in the nick of time and there were no problems getting on the plane and taking off.  Klaus and the Argentinian Nazis were not in hot pursuit, but they did arrive at the air port a half hour too late.  Malkin was not involved in the take-off, he stayed at the safe house to clean things up.  He took a train to Chile and eventually flew to Israel.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)




                In 1994, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a biography entitled The Catcher Was a Spy:  The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.  Twenty-four years later, a movie studio decided Moe Berg’s story would be a profitable subject for a movie.  And yet, still no movie about his boss Wild Bill Donovan.  Less drugs, Hollywood green-lighters.  “The Catcher Was a Spy” was directed by Ben Lewin.  He was given a big enough budget to film on location in Boston and Prague.  He also got a nice cast, headed by Paul Rudd.

                In 1936, Moe Berg (Rudd) was a back-up catcher for the Boston Red Sox.  He was called “Professor” because he was an intellectual.  He is included on a baseball tour of Japan headlined by Babe Ruth.  Berg was included not for his mediocre playing ability, but because he spoke Japanese.  While in Japan, he used a home movie camera to film Tokyo harbor.  When war broke out, Berg visited Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels) of the OSS to show the film.  An impressed Donovan hired Berg and gave him a desk job handling the Balkans.  When Donovan learns that the Nazis are developing a nuclear bomb, he sends Berg to Italy to investigate a scientist named Heisenberg (Mark Strong).  He is accompanied by an OSS agent (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (Paul Giamatti).  Berg’s mission is to assassinate Heisenberg.

                “The Catcher Was a Spy” has the feel of a “movie of the week”.  The cast gives me the impression the producers had bigger goals.  The stars are way out of this movie’s league.  Dawidoff manages to get them to give sincere performances to match the movie.  Rudd is solid in a movie that lacks any humor.  It’s not heavy lifting as Berg is a strange dude.  But not interesting strange.  More like nerd strange.  The movie throws in a gay subplot (I already mention no humor, so you can figure out what I mean here).  This sort of thing is required for a 21st Century biopic.  The subplot goes nowhere and adds no tension.  But then, there is little tension provided by the rest of the plot.  For a spy movie, there is little cloak and dagger or edge of your seat suspense.  His mission is easy and his life is never in danger.  Other than a nifty combat scene where the trio has to follow an American unit through an Italian city that is being taken house to house.  When you are making a lame spy movie, don’t throw in a good combat scene to contrast with.

                One positive thing I can say about the movie is it is fairly accurate.  As you will see below, it uses the basics of Berg’s life as the structure for the story.  Clearly it enhances the entertainment value like every biopic.  I seriously doubt he was in firefight.  As usual, the final act goes off the rails the most.  Berg is a fascinating historical figure and deserved a movie, but so do a lot of more deserving individuals.  I mentioned his boss William Donovan as an example.  This movie does not make a strong case for Berg receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (The biography below proves he deserved it.)  But my main beef with the movie is – who the hell green-lit this movie?  It made less than $1 million at the box office and that sounds about right.

GRADE  =  C-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  For the very few people who saw this movie (and the fewer who care), here is the low-down on Moe Berg.  He graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School.  He spoke several languages and read ten newspapers a day.  He became a professional baseball player and played fifteen seasons as a back-up catcher.  He was described as the “brainiest guy in baseball”.  He did appear on a radio quiz show called “Information, Please” which was great publicity for major league baseball.  He quit when the moderator began to ask him personal questions.  Casey Stengel said he was “the strangest man ever to play baseball”.  Was this because he was a closet homosexual?  The movie assumes that with no proof.  Twenty years ago, a movie would have avoided besmirching a man’s reputation, but I guess we have arrived at the point where depicting an historical figure as gay is a compliment.  I am for gay rights, but I wonder what Berg would have felt about the movie.  Considering his love of privacy, I think he might have sued.  I doubt he had a girlfriend like in the movie.  I really doubt he called her long distance from Zurich in the middle of the war.  He did go on a baseball tour of Japan with Babe Ruth.  (This was actually before he joined the Red Sox.)  While in Japan, he did surreptitiously film Tokyo harbor.  In his five years with the Red Sox, he played in less than 30 per year.  When he retired in 1939, he coached for two years.  After Pearl Harbor, he went to work for Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and showed them his film.  It may have been part of the preparation for the Doolittle Raid.  In August, 1943, he switched to the OSS where Donovan put him to work on the Balkans Desk.  He was paradropped into Yugoslavia to investigate the partisan groups to determine which the OSS should support.  He recommended Tito.  The movie covers Operation AZUSA.  Berg’s mission was to interview Italian scientists to find out how close the Germans were to an atomic bomb.   I would be shocked to find that he was told about the Manhattan Project by Donovan.  (The movie would have us believe Berg knew about the project while the Vice President didn’t.)  When it was learned that Heisenberg was scheduled to give a lecture in Zurich, the OSS sent Berg to attend and assess whether Heisenberg was close to developing a bomb.  If Berg determined Heisenberg was a threat, he was to assassinate him.  Berg decided the Germans were not close to a nuclear bomb and did not make an attempt on Heisenberg’s life.  I doubt there was a confrontation as shown in the movie.  Heisenberg was captured after the war and interrogated.  The Anglo-Americans determined that he was not attempting to create a superbomb.  He spent the rest of his life in scientific endeavors.  Berg left the OSS and worked part-time for the C.I.A., but by the mid-50s he was unemployed and stayed that way for the rest of his life.  He lived with siblings until his death in 1972.  His baseball card is on display at the C.I.A.   

Saturday, February 9, 2019

BATTLE OF THE BULGE: WUNDERLAND (2018)



                “Wunderland” is a WWII action movie written, directed, and starred in by Steven Luke.  It went straight to DVD.  It is set in the Battle of the Bulge.  It begins right before the German offensive and follows a platoon of men led by Lt. Cappa (Luke).  It opens with Cappa and four men sneaking up on and opening fire on a German artillery battery.  The scene closes with Cappa being wounded and clutching the cross around his neck.  A flashback takes us to the command bunker of Maj. McCulley (Tom Berenger).  Something is stirring in the Ardennes.  He orders Cappa and his platoon to plug a gap between the 99th and 106th divisions at a crossroads named Lanzerath.  Cappa’s men have seen a lot of action and are not thrilled about being sent back to the front line.  Isn’t the war almost over?  They dig in in a forest.  The rest of the movie involves either slaughtering Germans making frontal attacks on their position or Cappa and others going looking for Germans to slaughter.  For most of these forays, Cappa is accompanied by Sgt. Rock (I kid you not).

                Although not part of the franchise, “Wunderland” is similar to the “Saints and Soldiers” series.  Actually, it is closest to “War Pigs” (which Luke appeared in), which has Mickey Rourke in the Berenger role.  It is low budget, but Luke has made the best of his funds.  The uniforms and weaponry seem pretty authentic.  For instance, the Germans have MG42’s with their distinctive sounds.  The sound effects are nicely done.  There are a few vehicles that look like WWII vehicles.  There is a limited use of CGI as the movie prefers to look real, if small scale.  Whereas there is only one Sherman, Luke did manage to get a commendable number of reenactors for the German assaults.  They die better than the usual actors in movies like this.  Better than the Spanish infantry in the epic “Battle of the Bulge”.  No one has to act wounded, of course.  Cappa and his men are dead-eye shots.  Surprisingly, they sometimes reload.  It appears Luke cared about fidelity.

                The introduction to the movie gives accurate background to the battle.  I was stunned to find out that there was a platoon that defended Lanzerath against several German frontal assaults and the bodies did pile up in front of their position.  This holding action, which ended when they had to pull back from lack of ammunition, threw off the German time table. This incident would make a good movie. But this isn’t it.

                Where I give credit for trying to stick to historical facts, the movie has many flaws.  The acting is wooden, although Luke is sincere and Berenger seems fairly interested in earning his pay check.  I have seen much worse acting in movies like this.  The dialogue is not laughable, but Rock is forced to say “I’m way too old for this”.  I don’t know about the German dialogue since they speak German and there are no subtitles.  Kudos.  Luke shot the movie predominantly using a Steadicam.  It does not have the “Saving Private Ryan” look, but it is competently lensed.  The same cannot be said for the editing.  Some scenes make no sense.  Starting with the opening scene which implies we have started at the end and flashbacked to get us full circle.  Instead, the real ending has Cappa and Rock in a Malmedy Massacre type scenario.  It’s cross-clutching time again, but the movie is not overtly religious.  The one thing that you will never forget about the movie is the transitions from snow to no snow to snow again.  Luke can fairly say “hey, the behemoth ‘Battle of the Bulge’ couldn’t get this right either!”.  That is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a disconcerting element of his film.

                In conclusion, “Wunderland” was savaged by the critics.  I am not as harsh since I have seen similar movies that are truly terrible.  At least Luke tried hard to get it historically right.  That means it earns some good will.  It doesn’t mean that it is a good movie.  It is merely watchable, but I don’t think Luke was hoping for more than that.

GRADE  =  D

Thursday, February 7, 2019

CHINESE WAR PIC: Air Strike (2018)



                I saw a trailer (see below) for this movie a while back and have to admit, as much as I look forward to any war movie, I was very skeptical about this one.  When a trailer makes the movie bad…  (Speaking of trailers, the DVD begins with trailers for FOUR Bruce Willis straight to DVD movies.)  Here are the Rotten Tomato ratings on them – 0/6/13/0)  Let’s find out if my skepticism was justified.

                “Air Strike” (the Chinese title actually translates as “Big Bombing”) is also known as “The Bombing” or “Unbreakable Spirit”.  It was directed by Ziao Feng, but more importantly, art directed by Mel Gibson.  It was filmed in Shanghai for $65 million dollars, most of which must have gone to Bruce Willis’ salary.  A little coinage was thrown Adrien Brody’s way. I’m guessing he was paid a handsome hourly rate for his one minute of air time.

       The movie begins in 1937 with China getting its ass kicked by Japanese invaders.  The Chinese retreated to the provisional capital of Chongqing which the Japanese were determined to bomb the hell out of.  We know this because one minute into the movie, there is a CGI-enhanced bombing of the city.  This will not be the last time bombs fall in this movie.  Col. Jack Johnson (Willis) plays a military adviser training a Chinese fighter squadron.  He must be extremely good because his charges, flying Soviet Polikarpov I-15s (think Brewster Buffaloes), are able to duel with Japanese Zeros.  One of the pilots loses his brother, so we have the requisite vengeance-fueled character.  The Japanese know he is the one who dropped leaflets over Nagasaki and they are out to get him.  For this purpose, an evil Japanese ace is thrown in to hiss at.  Stay with me here.  Another subplot has another pilot, turned secret agent, trying to get a truck carrying a secret decoder to headquarters.  The Japanese air force is also out to get him.  You can expect some strafing to go along with all the bombing.  The truck agent picks up a woman and four kids and a shady Chinaman.  Another female character is a feisty female photojournalist who hooks up with the avenging aviator.  The cursory exposition takes place between bombings, dogfights, and truck-trek obstacles.

       At this point, you are probably wondering if my review is going to praise the gonzo nature of the film and recommend it as a guilty pleasure or condemn it as a piece of crap.  If you predicted choice B, you would be correct.  The plot, such as it is, is merely an excuse to chronicle a series of terror bombings.  The subplots are silly and include a mahjong tournament!  Realism does not apply.  Unintentional laughs abound.  When the truck’s road is blocked by an unexploded bomb, they get past it by driving on two wheels.  At one point, Jackson plots strategy in front of a table-top map with model airplanes on it.  This crapfest builds to a crescendo of nonsense with the crash-landing of a P-40 using a truck for landing gear, with Jackson cheering them on.  Spoiler alert: there is also a cliff involved.  To top that, the movie concludes with a slapstick routine involving another UXB.  You’ll finish the movie shaking your head about what you watched and about Bruce Willis’ career.

                The discouraging thing about the movie is the Chinese are capable of better (see “Operation Red Sea”), but this movie is made by slackers.  The CGI is bad.  If you take a drink every time a plane loses a wing, you will be drunk before Bruce Willis takes off with a cigar in his mouth.  Which reminds me to mention that Jackson is a besmirching of Claire Chennault.  Willis gives a half-ass rendering of whoever he is channeling.  He obviously was in it for the pay check.  The rest of the cast is mediocre.  They are basically there to be bombed, strafed, or shot down.

                In its defense, it does not claim to be based on a true story, but it is still sloppy history.  The biggest boner is having the Chinese fighters competing with Zeros (which were not in service at the time of the film, by the way) and having any chance whatsoever.  The CGI has fighters doing acrobatics that even the Zero could not pull off.  Surprisingly, the numerous bombings are fairly accurate because Chongqing was continually bombed from February, 1938 to August, 1943.  Most of the bombs were incendiaries, whereas the movie features high explosives, of course.  In the first two days of the terror bombing campaign, five thousand civilians were killed.  There were a total of 268 raids and it seems like the movie shows all of them.

                In conclusion, I mentioned drinking during the movie and that is the only way I can recommend it.  Watch “Operation Red Sea” instead.  Or any South Korean war movie.

GRADE  =  D