In Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar’s masterful film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, a ridiculously expensive pair of shoes given as a gift leads to a friendship between rising Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, “Encirclements”) and Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere, “Time Out of Mind”), an American businessman, consultant and, in the Yiddish expression, “gonif,” defined as a disreputable but not entirely crooked individual. Like Eliezer Shkolnik, the aging Talmudic scholar and philologist in Cedar`s 2011 film “Footnote,” Norman is persistent in his longing for prestige and recognition by his peers.
According to Cedar, “The tragic weakness of Norman and his ilk is that for them money acts as a substitute for intimacy; money is identified with power and influence . . . his only way to connect is to lie, and people know that.” Norman, brilliantly played by Richard Gere in one of his best performances, is a lonely man in his sixties living in New York but very much a cipher and we know nothing of his background other than his claim to being a widower with a college-age daughter. Given his tendency toward exaggeration and outright lies, however, its veracity is undetermined. Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Independence Day: Resurgence”), a government worker who he meets on an Amtrak trip tells him, “Everyone knows who you are, but no one knows anything about you.”
Always looking for connection, Norman makes contact with little-known but charismatic Israeli politician Micha Eshel, currently deputy minister of Industry, Trade and Labor who is visiting New York. Trying hard to endear himself to Eshel, Norman persuades him to browse in an upper crust shoe boutique and ends up buying him the most expensive shoes in the store. The fixer seems to have hit pay dirt when he learns three years later that Eshel has been elected Prime Minister of Israel, but the relationship turns out to be a mixed blessing. Not knowing whether or not Micha will even remember him, Norman waits in a greeting line to shake his hand at a victory party and is ecstatic when Eshel not only remembers him but gives him an effusive hug.
When he asks him to serve as intermediary between Israel and the New York-based wealthy Jewish community, it is Norman’s moment of triumph over those who have marginalized him over the years and opens doors that were previously closed to him, even though Duby (Yehuda Almagor, “Intimate Grammar”), Eshel’s aide, wants to keep Norman as far away from the Prime Minister as is humanly possible. Now wielding the power that has always eluded him, Norman tries to use Eshel’s name in negotiating transactions with Norman’s nephew Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen, “Passengers”) who needs a rabbi to preside over his wedding to a Korean convert, and Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”) who needs to find a donor who will contribute to the synagogue.
Norman’s dubious wheeling and dealing, however, catches up with him and he finds himself in deep personal and legal trouble. Never one to lose self-confidence, when he is told that he’s like “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he responds, “but I’m a good swimmer.” The problems, however, have serious international repercussions and recall many instances of the exchange of money and gifts have led to the downfall of many prominent American and Israeli.
Though Norman is an archetype and, in some ways, resembles the stereotyped “court Jew,” often used as an anti-Semitic reference, we can relate to, if not admire him as a flawed human being who, like many of us, wants very much to be loved and respected. We empathize with him for no reason other than that we share a common humanity and we may know from experience that there is often a thin line dividing the upright from the outcast.