Power is certainly seductive, but the seduction is not always sexual. Not just trophy wives and mistresses but also hangers-on, go-betweens, bagmen, publicists, even chauffeurs and physical trainers—all those behind the scenes partake of the pleasure of being near the mighty. Aside from those looking for profit, such people can be divided into two categories: those who agree with the goals and ideologies of their boss, and those who simply love proximity to the powerful, regardless of moral values. (Contrast the starry-eyed staff of The West Wing with the amoral factotums of VEEP.) The compelling oddity of the eponymous hero of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is that he belongs to the latter category and yet isn’t completely amoral.
Roaming the streets of Manhattan, never without his phone earplug in place, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is on the cusp of old age yet untiring in his quest to attach himself to anyone financially or politically important—not in order to put money in his own pocket, but just for the thrill of linking that person to someone else. Having wrangled a promised seat at a billionaire’s dinner party for a possibly rising Israeli politician, Micha Eshel, Norman sneaks into the host’s townhouse in order to make sure that the invitation was indeed extended. Mistaken as a party crasher, he’s humiliated and ejected, but not before seeing the place card with Micha’s name on it on the dinner table. Reading it, he beams with almost paternal pride. His man is in.
Early in the film Norman’s nephew tells him that, in his pursuit of movers and shakers, the fixer is like “a drowning man waving at an ocean liner.” Norman replies that he’s a good swimmer “as long as I can keep my head above water.” Trouble is, when you swim in the massive wake of an ocean liner, it’s almost impossible to keep your head above water. When Micha Eshel unexpectedly becomes prime minister and greets Norman in public as his “unofficial ambassador to New York Jewry,” the fixer suddenly finds himself a sought-after man for the first time in his career—but also targeted by the Israeli Ministry of Justice as a witness and enabler of Micha’s possible corruption.
The film’s one major flaw is that we’re never sure the corruption is more than possible. The brilliant Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar deals far too vaguely with this pivotal part of the narrative. It’s been clear from the start that Norman is a hustler who never hesitates to lie in order to schmooze and wheedle, but has he committed financial malfeasance? What specifically does the Ministry of Justice uncover? Since we’re never clear about this, we can’t tell who is using whom, or if the investigator is targeting Micha because of his politics. In the 1981 Paul Newman movie Absence of Malice, we’re shown specifically what a U.S. federal prosecutor discovers and what he invents, so we know just where the targeted hero stands morally. This is impossible in Norman, and this lack of clarity hobbles the drama.
What brings resonant, unsentimental pathos to the movie is the genuine bond of friendship between Norman and Micha, a bond rising out of the very different isolations of each man. Norman is isolated because he is socially unmoored and barely domiciled as he wanders around the city, looking for Wi-Fi and subsisting on canned herring and crackers for nourishment. In contrast, Micha, a Jewish Prince coming into his kingdom, is internally isolated because he is so riveted in place socially and politically: loudly denounced by enemies in the Knesset, fawned upon by admirers, hounded by the media, lectured on tactics by his handlers, and lectured in bed on familial responsibility by his wife. (In Cedar’s films wives and girlfriends are both nurturing and brutally honest). But when Micha was at a low point in his career, Norman bought him an expensive pair of shoes, and this endeared him to the politician because the purchase seemed at the time free of self-seeking. But was it? Norman’s greed is for sheer connection to power, not money.