For millennia, Jews have prayed for a return to Zion, and Zionist dreamers and thinkers sought the creation of a normative Jewish nation, a state like any other state, with its beggars, prostitutes, and yes, criminals.
Who could have imagined a State of Israel with prime ministers being investigated, and a member of the Knesset and a president of the nation joining a prime minister in serving time in prison? Israel has become a “nation like any other nation.” In “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” Joseph Cedar gives us another piercing narrative societal study of contemporary Israel, its politics, and its machismo.
In his first film, “Time of Favor” (2000), the American-born Israeli film writer and director looked at the Hesder yeshiva movement and the various misconceptions and fractures within and without that community. Next, in his 2004 “Campfire,” he provided an insightful study of life, particularly for women, within the Israeli settlement world. Cedar’s “Beaufort” (2007), set within an army fortress across the Israeli border in Lebanon, took a compelling look at average Israeli soldiers forced to live with each other in close proximity, bogged down in a war that they can’t quite comprehend. Then there was his 2011 “Footnote,” the film that almost won him an Oscar, about two parallel players, father and son, vying for attention in a very competitive academic setting.
What do his films have in common? And what does this extremely talented filmmaker bring from his previous work to this one? One theme emphasized here is empathy for the outsider who struggles to achieve acceptance and entry to a world that bars him or her from coming in. That is the story of Norman.
Norman Oppenheimer, played skillfully by Richard Gere, is a Jewish fellow on the periphery looking to gain access to the high-powered life of New York Jewry and Israeli society. He lacks the resources, the contacts, and the intellectual acumen to be part of the inner circle, until a few chance moments provide him the entry he long sought. He meets and coincidentally befriends a mid-level Israeli government official (Lior Ashkenazi) who one day would become prime minister of the State of Israel. To tell you more would spoil how beautifully director Cedar weaves this tale of one man, about whom we pretty much know nothing, who comes out of nowhere to become a central player in Jewish and Israeli circles, sought after for his insights and access.
Gere, who flew to Israel for the opening last month, gives one of his best performances. He is perfect as that person you may remember meeting at some party, who seems to know everyone, yet nobody you ask about him knows him. Lior Ashkenazi is fast establishing himself as one of Israel’s premier male actors, with exceptional work dating back to such films as “Late Marriage,” “Walk on Water,” and Cedar’s “Footnote.” Steve Buschemi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hank Azaria, and Josh Charles join these two in cameo appearances. Cinematographer Yaron Scharf does a great job in capturing on film the shallowness of Norman’s life through moving shots in alleyways and celebratory halls. And editor Brian Kates, from Teaneck, is superb in his exquisite editing of the contrasting worlds of each of the players.
There are interesting similarities between the tale spun by Cedar in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” and the one that brought down Prime Minister Olmert, who ended up in prison. In 2008, Long Island macher and businessman Morris Talansky testified in an Israeli court that he had given his friend Ehud Olmert $150,000. Talansky told about how he would go to hotels and give Olmert cash-filled envelopes. Though investigators assumed that the money was for Talansky’s benefit, they could not identify business ventures from which Talansky would gain. So why did he do it?
The drama caught the attention of the Israeli public, already dazed by several corruption investigations of the prime minister, but this picture of envelopes stuffed with dollars in hotel lobbies really tarnished Olmert’s image. Any Israeli watching this film will make the connection immediately.
As an American-born filmmaker schooled in moviemaking in New York and creating cinema in Israel, Cedar has had to feel on the perimeter of the tight network of Israeli-schooled filmmakers. He also is a Jew who comes from a traditional home, and this immediately makes him different. In a powerful way, this theme of “outside wanting in” continues to punctuate his work, with Cedar creating each film more brilliant than the one before.
“Norman” is not only the study of one man, but a deliberation on the Jew throughout history, and a consideration of Israel, a shunned nation of Jews not only seeking normalcy but acceptance.
Eric A. Goldman is writing a book about Israeli society through the lens of cinema.