Joseph Cedar’s new film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, opened this week in Jerusalem. This is the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a New York Jew, who makes a living by hustling, putting together deals and selling influence. He’s lonely and is desperately seeking some self-importance. The role is played by Richard Gere, who we would usually expect to play a completely different character – someone who radiates self-confidence. Here, he is challenged to play the eager-to-please Norman, and he does it magnificently! And his charming personality makes it easier for him to gain access to places where he wants to be seen as one who takes pleasure in helping others.
Norman befriends Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a deputy minister in the Israeli government. Courting a person who might one day be in power, Norman buys him an expensive pair of shoes. According to the filmmaker, these shoes represent “something that doesn’t evaporate, something that the character walks through life in.” And then when Eshel reaches power, Norman cashes in, obtaining a certain amount of status from his position as someone who knows the new prime minister of Israel. But the prime minister can’t be seen as accepting gifts, and thus we wonder when will it be necessary for him to just cast his friend aside.
At the Israeli premiere of the film last night, sponsored by the Times of Israel, filmmaker Joseph Cedar had an opportunity to discuss his film with the audience. He described the film as “a love story between two people, that starts out with a gesture and ends up with one sacrificing himself for the other.” The gesture is the purchase of the pair of shoes, a symbol of the corrupt and greedy Israeli politician whose willingness to accept an expensive gift shows his own moral failings.
According to Cedar, the movie is about one American Jew and one Israeli, and also about American Jews collectively. He also called it a "fairy tale." However, I didn't see it this way. Rather, it seemed to me that this film is a very real satirical and sarcastic portrayal of American Jewry, and a hard-hitting look at the relationship between American Jewry and the political leadership of Israel. American Jewry in the archetypal character of "Norman" is seen as a bumbling, not-too-aggressive fellow, begging for an opportunity to be seen near the seat of power – the way the leadership of American Jewish organizations grovel at the feet of Israeli politicians, wanting nothing more than to be in their presence and to be of service to the cause, without any critical thinking.
In particular, the film makes fun of AIPAC, which is called "AIPAL " in the film (hinting that all that these Jews want is to be pals with the Israeli leadership). The Israeli politicians don’t provide anything in return; rather, they require the sacrifice of each and every American Jew for the sake of their personal agendas which they define as the agendas of the very survival of the state (a very direct hint to the current leadership in Israel!).
Joseph Cedar certainly knows how to make complex narrative films. His previous award-winning films include: Footnote, Beaufort, Campfire, and Time of Favor. I especially loved the way that New York City can be seen as a major character in the film.
But I am troubled by Cedar’s simplistic view of American Jews as groveling in the face of aggressive and confident Israeli politicians. Notwithstanding this criticism, I really liked this film – the parallel to the “court Jews”, the deviousness, the intrigue, the influence peddling, and above all else, the depiction of both the leaders and their American Jewish followers as morally compromised.