Incendiary Cedar

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

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar

118 minutes, rated M

4 stars

Casting Richard Gere as a supremely irritating version of what is basically a hateful Jewish stereotype might seem like a really bad idea, especially for an esteemed Israeli director, but Joseph Cedar’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film Footnote is both courageous and clever. It’s the tragedy of a ridiculous man and it gives Gere his best role in years as Norman Oppenheimer, the kind of guy whose arrival would empty rooms at a convention.

Norman is a New York nobody. He pretends he’s a success, but has to lie all the time to do it. He stalks the people he wants to meet, even as they exercise in Central Park. Most of them run when they see him coming but Norman is unembarassable. He knows where the money is, he just can’t get near it, until one day his ferretting pays off and he meets Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a junior minister in the Israeli government. He buys the minister an extremely expensive pair of shoes – the first step on the road to hell. A few years later, when Eshel becomes prime minister, he makes Norman the go-to guy for American Jews who want to invest in Israel.

The stereotype is deliberate. The surname gives a clue: it comes from Suss The Jew, often cited as the most antisemitic of all Nazi propaganda films. In the 1940 film commissioned by Goebbels, Joseph Suss Oppenheimer is persecuted for becoming a man of influence in the 18th century court of the Duke of Wurttemberg. Applying this idea to a story about the machinations of Israeli politics is incendiary, but Cedar has never lacked subtlety and he does not care about tact. In fact, he inverts the stereotype here, with powerful effect.

Allegations of corruption against Israeli politicians – some dealing with gifts from American benefactors – are not new. Cedar presents a semblance of a credible story about how such things happen, without overt judgement. Norman is just trying to help people out; Eshel is just trying to reward a friend. After she meets Norman on a plane, Israeli lawyer Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is just trying to keep everyone honest.

Cedar’s films offer complex webs of moral and spiritual crisis. He’s a secret crusader, a battered idealist, and that turns some directors into judge and jury. Not Cedar. He is smart enough to recognise that the grey areas in life are where the richest stories live, and he has huge empathy for his characters. That makes the film immensely watchable and rewarding.