There is always a slight trepidation that comes from viewing a film with a title as obnoxiously long winded as Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2016). Other than causing world weary, bitter film essayists such as myself to make a point about how it will be referred to simply as Norman for the rest of the criticism (which, it will), it suggests that the film has an undeserved and unearned self-importance that can only come from viewing the film in its entirety, rather than through its title. Thankfully, as the movie starts, one quickly realizes that this form of unwarranted self-important chest puffing is completely in tune with how Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) might introduce himself if he believes it will help him climb the slippery and cutthroat ladders of business and international politics.
Norman is the English language debut of Israeli-American filmmaker Joseph Cedar and chronicles the life of Norman, a man who despite his well-dressed appearance (always seen with a dashing flat cap and camel hair winter coat) is more akin to a vagrant than a successful self-made man. He presents himself as a well-connected power broker who is eager to make introductions to the mutual benefit of all parties. In return for being able to give you a nudge into the inner circle of the elite, Norman’s only wish is to be allowed to say that he knows you and can introduce other people to you. However, it becomes apparent that Norman doesn’t know anyone, and those he has encountered are all too wary of his con artist routines. While he is polite whenever he accosts a member of the wealthy elite in his attempts to make a connection, his bartering tactics are similar to a vagrant asking for spare change. His smile and well-crafted business cards are a transparent shield in front of an aggressive, desperate man who quickly repels all he meets.
Norman is a man with few friends, whose constant attempts to seem enthusiastic and friendly betray a large wall he's around himself. This is intentional, as Norman’s many desperate lies rely on no one knowing how little he has achieved. At one point Norman’s cousin, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), a criminal lawyer and the only person who willingly gives Norman hints due to a sense of family loyalty, tells him, “You’re a drowning man waving at an ocean liner.” Norman smiles wryly and responds by saying, “Yes, but I’m a good swimmer. I just need to keep my head above water.” In many ways, this is how Norman lives daily, with his head just above the surface. Each calculated step he makes keeps him from being submerged; all he needs is one big kick to either pull him from the water, or finally cause him to drown.
Such a kick comes when Norman can worm his way into becoming friends with Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli diplomat who is visiting New York during a tumultuous time during his political ascent. In an exquisitely delicate piece of filmmaking, Norman and Micha’s first meeting is filmed from inside a shoe store while the two men converse outside. The dialogue is inaudible, the music becomes jaunty, and Norman’s gestures become more animated and wild. It’s not dissimilar to the kind of silent comedy from a bygone era of filmmaking. Three years later, when Micha becomes the prime minister of Israel, he allows Norman into his inner circle, much to the chagrin of the political aides already at Micha’s side, who are now threatened by Norman’s inclusion. This signals the “moderate rise” of the obnoxiously long title, as now that Norman has some semblance of power, he finds that the lies he tells and the promises he does not intend to keep come back to haunt him.
While Norman has only just come out on DVD, it was filmed sometime during 2015 or 2016, roughly a year or more before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Despite this, and despite Norman dealing more in the murky waters of Israeli-American relations, the film feels incredibly relevant. Micha and Norman are not inherently bad men, and Norman’s bullish attempts to make friends with politicians and business men come as much from a desire to build a connection with someone that he could see as an equal as much as it is about ladder climbing. While watching Norman, I was reminded of the recent news of Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer, thereby making a mockery of Trump Sr’s claims that he has no connection with politicians in Russia. Norman, like Trump Jr., suffers from the same urge to be seen and to look as if he's doing something of use. Once they have power, it becomes suffocating, and they can’t help but slip on their lack of political savviness. In short: hot air may be able to get you into a seat of power, but it can’t keep you there.
Cedar has a deft hand, keeping the tone wryly humourful, with the dialogue sparkling with intelligent wit and Jun Miyake’s score being light and bouncy; which in turn allows the darker political machinations to have an almost farcical tone. He also has an understanding that corruption isn’t necessarily as simple as evil people doing evil things, so he shows Norman’s journey not as a malicious depiction of absolute power corrupting absolutely, instead as a sign that corruption can often come with the best of intentions. Norman can’t keep up with his promises, but he makes them because he believes that by telling people what they want to hear, he can keep Micha out of trouble.
Richard Gere is brilliant, partly because he can mine the charm and charisma from his heartthrob days in the 1980s and turn it into something repellent. It’s a finely judged performance that understands how to depict desperation as both a motivator and as a noose. Watching Gere’s plastered on smile slowly twist as it becomes more apparent that Norman has no idea how to fix things is both pitiful and revealing of the fearful man beneath the smile. Norman’s wall being chipped away allows Gere to do some of his most subtly effective work as the façade that Norman presents is mostly unchanged, save for a few twitching smiles that give him away. Watching someone being slowly embroiled in a corrupt world they were not yet prepared for has never been this tense. This is an exceptionally high achievement considering how much Gere eclipses an excellent supporting cast, highlights of which include Sheen as mentioned above and Ashkenazi. This is a masterful work from an actor who is best utilized when playing characters whose charm and good looks hide a toxic and corrosive personality; in this regard, Norman could be the spiritual successor to Julian, Gere’s character from American Gigolo (1980).
Cedar also makes the wise decision of handing his audience just enough information regarding Micha’s potential scandal as to not undercut the importance of the plot, but not enough to give away too much that it might be ascribed to any specific political scandal. This way, the story is structured so that what is going on feels real and can remind the viewer of any number of disgraced politicians without specifically referring to any one politician or scandal. So while it may have reminded me of the current scandal regarding the Trump administration, someone could just as easily watch it ten years from now and feel the same kind of sweaty palmed, desperate relevance happening at the time when they are watching it. This is no small feat as many movies handling politics quickly age, regardless of their objective qualities as pieces of fiction.
Hopefully, more films in the future will handle the balancing act between telling an entertaining story with complex character development and depict the complexities of international politics. Cedar and Gere get that balance mostly right, leaving its audience with a rich story and well-explored themes without making them feel as if they have been lectured.