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Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)

Directed by: John Cedar

Premise: Norman (Richard Gere) is a small time wheeler and dealer who establishes a relationship with an up and coming Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi). Several years later that politician becomes the Prime Minister of Israel and Norman attempts to utilize that relationship. 

What Works: The political fixer is not a well-respected figure in cinema or in society. In the media, these characters usually take the form of Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog, Frank Langella in Dave or the slimy and duplicitous characters on television shows like Veep and House of Cards. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is about a similar kind of figure. The title character is a man who spends his every waking moment trying to ingratiate himself into the power structure and he is sometimes obnoxious in his efforts to do so. But Norman isn’t the stereotypical corrupt figure. Played terrifically by Richard Gere, Norman is a paradoxical character. He pursues the rich and powerful, sometimes crossing ethical lines to do so, but he does not appear to live an easy or luxurious life. In fact, we never get to know much about Norman beyond his job. He doesn’t appear to have a home or a family and he is always out and about with his cell phone and side bag. This isn’t a fault of characterization; the point is that this man lives his job and has nothing else. What is further peculiar about Norman is that he actually attempts to do some good by angling people’s interests so that they will solve each other’s problems. And for his troubles Norman is frequently belittled and humiliated and overwhelmed by the complexity of the system he attempts to operate. That makes him a sympathetic figure and Gere plays him that way. Norman finds a kindred spirit in an Israeli politician and he ingratiates himself into the politician’s life through gifts and small favors. Those gestures violate ethical and legal lines but they are also made earnestly and this film suggests that political corruption has some nuance to it. As in films such as Lincoln and All the Way, Norman implies that doing good inevitably requires compromise. That’s especially evident in the Israeli Prime Minister played by Lior Ashkenazi. He envisions possibilities for peace in the Middle East but reasons that compromise is necessary to get there. He and Norman experience isolation and loneliness and when Norman’s forays into bribery come back to haunt them it doesn’t have the flavor of just comeuppance. Instead, Norman is a tragic figure and the movie is full of complexity.

What Doesn’t: Norman does not adhere to the obvious templates of most political stories. This isn’t about the corruption of its central character like All the King’s Men nor is it the sort of inspirational tale found in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is a different kind of movie in which corruption and innocent naiveté exist in the same moment and in the same people. The ethical distinctions of Norman are vague and in some respects they are even irrelevant until politics and the plot of the movie dictate that they are. As a result, Norman doesn’t satisfy viewers in the way that political stories usually do. It does not enable our cynicism about the system nor does it suggest that virtue and integrity will inevitably win in the end. And in that respect, Norman is likely to confuse and even frustrate viewers at this particular cultural moment. The movie suggests nuance and human complexity at a time when the mainstream political zeitgeist rejects both. That makes Norman a challenging movie that isn’t likely to be embraced by viewers who are blinded by partisanship.

DVD extras: Interviews and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is an unusual film. It is not necessarily a crowd pleaser but it is a thoughtful picture that tries to reframe political corruption in a way that dramatizes the desire to do good in a flawed system.

Episode: #674 (November 12, 2017)