Norman (2016)

117 min. Director: Joseph Cedar. Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Richard Gere.

You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. Since the “Citizens United” ruling, some Americans have harbored an intensified suspicion of how money talks in the political sphere, but of course, such concerns are as old as government itself. The fine art of currying favor, preferably by the subtlest of means, is the stuff of the new film from writer-director Joseph Cedar: Norman, a.k.a. Norman: The Moderate Rise & Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

Israeli filmmaker Cedar (Footnote) here imagines an international scandal in the making, stemming from a “chance” encounter between titular Manhattan “fixer” Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) and low-level Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). Taking a roll of the dice, Norman impresses Micha with a big, costly gesture of friendship. It’s a gamble that pays off when Eshel becomes Prime Minister of Israel, giving Norman a friend in high places to beat all. Before and after that reversal of fortune, Norman remains true to his “professional” essence: he’s a hustler, a power broker, an expert in keeping up appearances (despite having no office and precious few quantifiable resources). Norman’s self-styled job is to keep balls in the air as he constantly scans the landscape for new opportunities, new connections he can make for himself or between his acquaintances.

And so his relationship with Micha becomes a commodity. The Prime Minister persists in viewing Norman as a genuine friend, but Norman cannot help but see opportunity for himself and those in his circle he’s desperate to impress, most notably his nephew Philip (Michael Sheen) and a rabbi (Steve Buscemi) seeking protection for his fiscally threatened temple. Meanwhile, Norman remains so on the run, keeps his act together so tenuously, that one wonders if he even has a home: it’s not beyond him to park himself on a public bench for a spell or to raid the pantry at the temple for a snack of pickled herring on a Ritz.

Cedar and Gere conspire to make Norman a fascinating figure of vision, chutzpah, persistence and flop sweat, and a parade of foils (including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Josh Charles, and Hank Azaria) help to put into relief the comical contradictions of a man who’s undoubtedly sad but also a surprisingly estimable people person. Cedar maintains a big picture view inspired by the real-life 18th century figure Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, whose relationship to a German duke inspired the archetype of “the Court Jew.”

As big as that picture can get (international politics), Norman and Micha ground the picture in a humanity inevitably compromised by politics, and the runaway situations therein. Norman earns his “tragic fall” by operating per his own loose set of ethics and valuing machinations just a little bit more than sincerity. Norman’s thoughtful dramatic construction, built around a central symbol of a pair of shoes, addresses politician’s voracious desire to “go places,” ever outpacing forethought of where that ambition will take them and the true costs of doing business.