Rob Edelman: Trivializing Tragedy?

Sep 24, 2018

Near summer’s end, the ads for one particular film were invading TV stations. That film is OPERATION FINALE, set in the very early 1960’s: a fact-based thriller that centers on the effort to capture Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi criminal, who had escaped to Argentina. Eichmann was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews and, for sure, OPERATION FINALE is a sobering subject. It does acknowledge that anti-Semitism still was thriving in all its ugliness a decade-and-a-half after the end of World War II. But primarily, OPERATION FINALE is a by-the-numbers thriller. It stars a couple of name actors: Oscar Isaac, as an Israeli agent, and Ben Kingsley, as Eichmann. Back in 1982, Kingsley earned an Academy Award playing the title role in GANDHI, which proves that talented actors can wrap themselves around any real-life role.

Now when I first learned about OPERATION FINALE, I had to ask myself: Will this be yet another film that trivializes a tragedy, all in the name of entertainment? Well, if this is the case, it would not be the first film to do so. Take for example the Vietnam War. From the mid-1970’s on, a spate of films from APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER to GO TELL THE SPARTANS and THE HANOI HILTON examined the Vietnam experience. Whatever their points-of-view, they offered telling portraits of the war. They all were linked in that they not just depicted Vietnam but put forth an attitude about the war. They viewed Vietnam as a political issue: one that still was being examined by the American public.

But then, a new Vietnam film that is not from the late 1970’s or 80’s looked back at the war decades after the fact. This film is titled RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, and it played in theaters in 2000. Its opening sequence is set in Vietnam in 1968, and it involves two long-time friends and career Marine officers, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. At the film’s opening, you get to see them and their men under heavy fire while fighting in Vietnam. Then the film moves on to the present, with its plot having to do with what happens to these characters in the present day. And keep in mind that, when I say “present day,” I mean 28 years after 1968. That is 1996, or quite a bit of a jump in time from 1968. 

Also keep in mind that RULES OF ENGAGEMENT was released when the Vietnam War officially had ended a quarter-century earlier. So here, Vietnam is just a plot device, a dramatic reference point for what happens later in the film. And this directly relates to the point of view of how films reflect the times in which they are made.

In the year 2000, you can have a film that cites Vietnam but only as nothing more than a dramatic reference point. That is because enough years had passed since the end of this controversial war. I doubt that a film like RULES OF ENGAGEMENT could have been made when APOCALYPSE NOW or THE DEER HUNTER or GO TELL THE SPARTANS were released. Similarly, despite its acknowledgment of anti-Semitism, I doubt that OPERATION FINALE the thriller could have been made in 1946, or 1952, or 1962.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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