Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2016)

  • Time: 117 min
  • Genre: Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Joseph Cedar
  • Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi


Norman Oppenheimer is a small time operator who befriends a young politician at a low point in his life. Three years later, when the politician becomes an influential world leader, Norman’s life dramatically changes for better and worse.

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  • Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
    Don’t let the New York setting and largely American cast throw you off. This is another brilliant examination of Israeli social and political issues by the American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar. It’s perhaps his funniest but still as insightful and heartfelt as his others, from Time of Favour (2000) through Footnote (2011).
    Of course, the issues at play in this Israel ramify to cover other nations, other cultures, indeed humanity in general. As the Knesset scenes define Israeli politics the US scenes address the American diaspora, largely represented as the right-wing AIPAC.
    Two phrases define the film’s central themes. One is the pledge for peace Israeli Prime Minister Eshel gives the US ambassador: “The opposite of compromise is not integrity. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” The idealistic Eshel embodies the Israel that has offered compromises for peace, striving to sustain justice and humanity — as witnessed in his phone-call to apologize to Norman, his “friend” about to be thrown under the bus in the interests of keeping the peace-making PM in office.
    The second is “tzedokah” — the term that dominates the Hebrew liturgy we hear first in the choir’s rehearsal, to which besieged hero Norman retreats to find peace, and finally in the full synagogue performance. The word means “charity,” the ultimate value in Judaism. The prayer is the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing. This film is pitched as a prayer for healing in Israel and in the world. Norman proves the however unlikely figure of “the blessed” (what the prayer’s title means).
    This despite his early appearance as a pathetic and suspect hustler, a mix of the political fixer or influence peddler and the Woody Allen loser, or nebbish. The “Norman” stamps him a normal guy, an Everyman, and the surname Oppenheim an ironic reminder of the wealth and power he doesn’t have. Try as he may he will never become the “macher” or big wheel he pretends to be.
    At first the hustler aggressively tries to “help” business and political figures by putting them together for possible profit, his but mainly theirs. We don’t hear him setting his fee. He’s living off a modest inheritance from his mother (coincidentally his channel to official Judaism too) but his eagerness to help others is tinged by his own need to make a living. The thousand-dollar pair of shoes he buys the down-at-luck Israeli minister becomes “the best investment [he] ever made” when that Eshel becomes PM.
    Eventually Norman’s vanity endangers that supposed friend’s career. Norman’s bragging to the woman from the Israeli justice department leads to a ridiculous investigation that threatens to bring down the PM. Of course, like several predecessors PM Netanyahu is currently under investigation for allegedly having accepted gifts or bribes from US businessmen. But Eshel is the ideal not Netanyahu. In Norman’s case the alleged corruption is insignificant, especially in the context of its possibly exploding the current peace effort.
    Norman rises from nebbish to tragic hero by transcending the charity of commercial helping and by sacrificing his life for the greater good. He not only saves his friend’s government and thus the peace process, he manages a traditional Jewish wedding for his nephew and his unconverted Korean wife, e gets the PM’s underperforming son into Harvard, he helps a businessman make a financial killing and — through that — raises the $14,000,000 needed to save his synagogue from destruction. All those good deeds come about through Norman’s compromise, which circumvents any possible complaints about “integrity.” What counts is humanity in all its diverse character and needs.
    At the same time as he is a realistic contemporary American figure — of the Sammy Glick and Daddy Kravitz persuasion — Norman is also The Wandering Jew. He has no family, no home, no definable background — and the nomad constantly wears his one camel-hair coat.
    Norman is only one example of that mythic type. In Srul Katz he meets his doppelganger — same pestering desire to “help,” same card offering personalized “Strategies,” same disturbing ubiquity. Katz is a seedier, possibly earlier version of Norman, so he may or may not rise to Norman’s heroic resolution. In his doing good and the humiliations he suffers for that, Norman is a minor key Jesus and Katz a minor key Norman.
    Heroism? Norman manages a particularly Jewish kind of heroic sacrifice. Ever hear of “suicide by peanuts”? The Lord moves in mysterious ways — and through unlikely agents — Her wonders to perform.
    Norman has to be an unimpressive figure because it is a fantasy to assume any one person can resolve an issue as complicated as peace in the Middle East. In that tinderbox, when the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death, it takes extended compromise on both sides for peace. But the film remains rooted in fantasy in one other key element: it shows no Palestinian characters. Admitting the reality of the Arabs’ 100-year resolve to eradicate the Jews would explode any fantasy of peace. It takes two to untangle.
    The film drives on two kinds of music, the cheery folk melodies of daily Yiddish life and the sombre ageless antiquity of the Hebrew prayer. That balance characterizes Israel, the eternal Jewish state whose legitimacy — however questioned these days — rests on formal edicts from the League of Nations and the UN as well as on Biblical history. In Israel everything smacks of both the fluid present and the echoing historic past.
    So this individual fixer is also the mythic Wandering Jew. When Eshel recognizes and embraces him in public, Norman moves through a setting of frozen postures as if he were living in a separate time frame. So too the doubled reality in the scenes where characters from disparate settings appear in the same shot. The here and now in Israel is always the there and then as well. The moment is the eternal. The formal division of the plot into theatrical acts confirms the sense of a life lived both as an immediate flow and as part of a larger structure.

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