By giving Norman the subtitle of The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, writer-director Joseph Cedar takes away narrative suspense and thus opens us up to simply observe the behavior of the film’s mysterious title character, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere). First seen plugging away at his lawyer nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), for information about a client he may want to approach, Norman immediately exudes an air of experience in the political deal-making game. But from the way he over-inflates or just plain lies about his supposedly high-profile connections to others, it’s clear that all his hustling has yet to bear any substantial fruit.
The film, though, chronicles the man’s one shining success: Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli Deputy Minister of Trade who Norman charms in part by buying him an expensive pair of shoes. It’s an act that, three years later, Micha still fondly remembers when, now serving as Israel’s prime minister, he sees Norman at a political conference in Washington, D.C. With that act of recognition, for what appears to be the first time in his life, Norman seems truly important: a real player in the political game. But as the film’s subtitle gives away, the high-flying moment doesn’t last.
Cedar charts this rise-and-fall arc with the attention to detail of a procedural. Throughout, Norman handles a delicate balancing act between empathy and bemusement, the latter evident in Jun Miyake’s jaunty score, which lends the film a breeziness even when events turn toward the disastrous. And Cedar indulges in some visual playfulness to help lighten the tone. Most imaginative are montages of phone conversations that Norman conducts with others in which Cedar collapses the space between caller and recipient, making it seem as if Norman is in the same room as the person he’s talking to.
Cedar is generally compassionate toward Norman, though he isn’t shy about acknowledging his foibles. This is most evident in a conversation he has with Israeli judicial investigator Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with Norman ignoring all of her visible signs of disinterest until something he says about his connection to Micha finally perks her up. Nor does the filmmaker fully resolve any of the mysteries surrounding Norman. We never learn if there’s any truth to his claims of having a late wife and daughter, whom he frequently cites in order to forge an instant connection with those he’s trying to broker a deal. In the end, we’re left as much in the dark about the real Norman Oppenheimer as most of the people with whom he interacts.
Cedar locates both an authenticity at the heart of this ceaseless striver and a generosity toward others that complicates easy condemnation of his actions. Norman’s mensch-like attitude is evident in his desperate attempts to reach out to Micha in order to get him to do a favor for a friend, Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), as well as in his sincere interest in helping Micha out during a political scandal. Much of that sincerity is Gere’s doing, as he projects a kindheartedness that makes us understand why people like Micha might find Norman charming, and a humility that helps to explain the man’s inability to survive in the more cutthroat political world. Cedar’s willingness to see the lonely human being underneath the manipulative hustler surface is what makes Norman as slyly provocative as it is entertaining.