A jailed former Israeli prime minister can't compete with his fixer’s nephew.
Diederik van Hoogstraten has done a fine job in these pages reviewing Norman for dramatic content and performances, particularly the challenging role entrusted to Richard Gere. It has not been a financially successful run to date, bringing in less than a million dollars since its April 14 open. But as a political and personal statement by Director Joseph Cedar in his first American feature, it has resonant bombshell qualities for those who follow the political events of our age.
The back story of the film is that it is a fictionalized depiction of the relationship between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, currently serving time in prison on corruption charges, and Morris Talansky, the New York businessman who testified that he handed Olmert $150,000 in cash-filled envelopes over the years, as Olmert went from upstart political aspirant to cabinet Minister to Mayor of Jerusalem and eventually to the highest office in the State of Israel. This was in addition to numerous small favors Talansky doled out to Olmert during that period of time.
Talansky is the ex-uncle of Joseph Cedar, married for forty years to the sister of Cedar’s mother. As such, Talansky’s fall reflected on the family and may have created some challenges for Cedar’s career in Israel.
In any case, the film does not dance around the parallels between Talansky and Norman Oppenheimer, Gere’s fictional bagman to fictional Deputy Minister turned Prime Minister Eshel. It draws them in bold colors, even to casting Lior Ashkenazi as Eshel. Look up images of Olmert and Ashkenazi, and cover Olmert’s bald pate for a moment, and the resemblance is startling. Eshel, like Olmert, has a bold peace plan that is endangered by the pending criminal indictments.
Indeed, it is fair to say the film is a fictionalization or a dramatization of an article by Steve Fishman in New York magazine on September 14, 2008. (Talansky does not share Gere’s actorish charm, but Gere was clearly made up to resemble him.) The title is “Morris and Udi: A Story of Unrequited Love.” The subtitle reads: “How a Five Towns macher brought down the Prime Minister of Israel.” The film title tracks this model closely. “NORMAN: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Macher and fixer are synonyms in New York-ese.
Tracking the article alongside the film is fascinating. Here are selections from Fishman which are mirrored closely in the progress and presentation of the movie:
Morris had loved the idea of Israel from the time he was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn. As he climbed ladders, both spiritual and material, his devotion had blossomed. One consequence was a close relationship with Ehud Olmert, an ambitious, skilled, and tenacious Israeli politician who was climbing himself, from Knesset member to minister of Health to mayor of Jerusalem and finally to prime minister. To Morris, Olmert almost seemed like an incarnation of Israel.
Olmert did try to open at least one door for “my dear friend,” as he called Morris, though that had been quickly slammed shut… “We had a very strong friendship,” says Morris. “I truly loved the man.”… The object of Morris’s affection has a different view of their relationship… that especially irks the prime minister, a point of pride. Of course, Olmert says, Morris was helpful at a certain point. But of what real significance is a man like Morris Talansky to a prime minister of Israel?… Olmert is almost insulted by the insinuation that the would-be Five Towns macher was a close personal friend. Morris hadn’t been invited into Olmert’s personal life, hadn’t been to his home.
Morris bristled. “I’m a social engineer,” he snapped. As Morris saw it, he shaped events. People came to him. “Most of my time is [taken up with] people asking me for favors,” Morris once explained. “That’s all I’m doing all day.”
Olmert fell for New York. He loved its pace, its international air, its many pleasures — the NBA, Broadway, museums, good restaurants (the Tribeca Grill, Union Pacific, for instance). And then, like every successful Israeli politician, he understood the appeal of affluent New York Jewry.
Olmert… sent Morris a very beautiful message on his 70th birthday. Morris still recalled the gist: If ever he were in trouble, he’d want Morris to stand by his side. There were other things, too. Mostly, though, it was the feeling that Morris had. “You can tell after many, many years how people feel about you,” says Morris. “You can tell when somebody says something whether it’s just to make you feel good. I hope I’m a good judge of character.”
Olmert, it seemed, was a man with a weakness for luxury — Morris testified, for instance, that he was called on to foot Olmert’s $4,700 hotel bill at the Ritz-Carlton. (“A lot for two days,” he told the court with a shrug.)
Olmert no longer has room to maneuver. His peace initiative with the Palestinians, like all his initiatives, is now viewed as a ploy to retain power.
I mention that Olmert’s downfall is a result of Morris’s testimony.
“Not because of me?” Morris asks. He seems taken aback.
“Come on, come on.”
“That’s what they’re saying,” I tell him. The next day, the Times writes without attribution: “In the end, though, it was the testimony of Mr. Talansky from Long Island that brought the prime minister down.”
“Oh, that’s what they said? That it was me that did it? Nah.”
Perhaps, I think, Morris is hurt. He’d helped Olmert so much. When it counted, the Long Island macher had lent his good name, his considerable, if local, influence to the cause of Olmert. And he got condescended to by the person whom, as he saw it, he’d helped create. Morris must appreciate the irony: Olmert is chased from office for schnorring of his own, holding his hand out, in effect, to Morris Talansky.
Morris, though, won’t admit to cynical thoughts, even when I cue him. I point out that in court Olmert had tried to destroy Morris’s reputation.
“That was his lawyers. Never, never would he have done this to me. Never, never.”
I’d once suggested to Morris that Olmert believed he was one among many close and helpful receivers of big hugs. “He would never, never have said that,” Morris insists. “Absolutely not.”
I say, “You know that your relationship with Olmert is over now.”
“Not so. Not so,” he insists.
That collection of themes and insights from the New York magazine article is the movie (we see Eshel hungrily window shopping at tony NYC boutiques and dining at ritzy restaurants, we see Norman cringe over a price tag, we see Eshel’s wife confront him about “all the Normans in your life” and we see Eshel reassure Norman that he will have to say pejorative things he does not really mean), delivered with a sprinkling of genius. (A cultural touch to make every Jew chuckle: the synagogue has crackers and herring left over from Sabbath, and the desperately hungry sometimes come in to nibble.)
In addition, Cedar is telegraphing to Uncle Morris that he is no mover and shaker but a hustler and a wannabe. There may be a few more side swipes thrown in, like the prosecutor asking Norman at the very end if he really has a daughter. (Of course the only identifiably successful relative Norman has is… his nephew.) I suspect that means something in the context of the divorce and family dynamics.
But the ultimate message Cedar sends his uncle is the ending, which shouts this rebuke: “Your moment was not your peripheral acquaintance with a person of real importance. Your moment came when his fate was placed in your hands and suddenly all your hustles had added up to real power. There was only one way to be a hero and turn all this vanity meaningful retroactively, and that was by shutting your mouth, by tiptoeing out of the headlines into anonymity.”
It is not often that a close relative of a participant in a major international drama gets to eternalize his impressions in an enduring art form, sending messages to all the players. Olmert has been in prison since February 2016, but I am sure he has cinema privileges. Now that is a review I would love to read…