When Big Names Are Everywhere

When Big Names Are Everywhere

Norman and Obit are movies lovingly dedicated to the virtues of the small and the anonymous.


The blessings of peace rain down in Joseph Cedar’s Norman, seeded from low clouds of bribery, cronyism, and résumé inflation. The bribe amounts to no more than a pair of men’s shoes (though, to give the corruptor his due, they’re Lanvin); the cronyism, to wishful claims of friendship with the rich and powerful. As for the résumé inflation, it’s a sin the title character can scarcely avoid, surviving as he does on a business card and a cell-phone number.

You’ve met this exhausting type before: the wheedler, the cajoler, the unrelenting hanger-on, overjoyed to have run into you because he swore to your cousin in Baltimore that he would double your money, as soon as you give it to him. The tartness of Norman—subtitled The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer—comes from situating this figure within the segment of American Jewry that would do anything (please, just ask me!) for the State of Israel. The film’s sweetness, and its innovation, comes from perceiving the sincerity of this particular schnorrer, whose desperation to advance himself is inextricably bound up with his desire to serve others. How is the world maintained? Through the good works of scheming nobodies like Norman Oppenheimer.

You hear Norman on the soundtrack before you see him, which seems appropriate for this man of tumbling and unreliable words. His light baritone is pitched for ingratiation but breathlessly insistent; his enunciation rapid but braying, as if mashed potatoes caught beneath his upper lip were keeping him from closing his vowels. You listen to the spiel he’s rehearsing, about a billion-dollar deal, and realize that he wants to arrange it between parties he doesn’t actually know.

Then he pops into view: a bookishly bespectacled Richard Gere bundled up in a cloth cap, camel-hair coat, and muffler, his unbarbered white hair flopping over his right eye, a leather satchel slung awkwardly over his left shoulder. Hope, need, and loneliness are written on his every feature, from the lips that hang open with baffled longing to the little eyes that squint upward in anxious appeal. He is the very image of a “warm Jew” (as someone will soon call him), stuck in the cold place of the movie’s perpetually snowbound Manhattan. When Norman meets with his real contacts, they generally agree to see him on the plazas outside their midtown towers, not inside, and then forget their overcoats, which tends to shorten the conversation. When he accosts prospective contacts during their morning runs in Central Park, they scowl in contempt and flee down the icy paths.

Norman is the story of this merchant of unsought, dubious favors and the one prospect who does not freeze him out: Micha (Lior Ashkenazi), a sleek Israeli official with a sweet tooth and a streak of melancholic self-doubt. Targeted by Norman at a business conference and then pursued through the New York of glass-curtain-wall offices and shop windows—a city ready-made for snooping and stalking—Micha allows the voluble stranger to approach, talk, sidle in, touch his forearm, and finally clutch his shoulder. (Cedar cleverly shoots this action in dumb show, from behind the window at Lanvin, so you needn’t think about Norman’s chances of fooling anyone with his patter; you just see Micha acquiesce.) It’s the most superficial of encounters, after which the two men go back to being isolated in New York: Micha dining at taxpayer expense at a table for one, while Norman appropriates some herring and Ritz crackers from the stock in a synagogue kitchen. But by the evening’s uneventful Chekhovian end, they’re bound by a cell-phone connection and the sound of their tired voices. Micha has recognized that Norman is clingy but well-intentioned—at heart, just a warm Jew. And both men have understood that they’re mirror images: one fretting that he’ll never rise, the other worried that he’s already on his way down.

Yet Micha does not descend. Three years later, at the start of the film’s next chapter, he has become the new prime minister of Israel, rapturously applauded at an AIPAC-like convention attended by every American power Jew that Norman has ever wanted to meet. Norman is there, too, wearing a lanyard badge that was presumably begged, stolen, or acquired at a steep discount. And Micha remembers him. Being the warm type himself, he embraces Norman in full view of the delegates and calls him “my friend.” The action stops momentarily; Cedar literally arrests it so that Norman can wander in a happy daze among the people who now ring him like motionless horses on his own private carousel. When the action grinds back to life, it suddenly accelerates far beyond the earlier pace. For the rest of the movie, Norman will busily improvise intrigue upon teetering intrigue by virtue of his ostensible proximity to Micha, while Micha will effect a similarly jury-rigged and very Norman-like plan for peace in the Middle East.

More satire than comedy, more fable than satire, Norman may remind Cedar’s fans of the continually shifting tone of Footnote, his variously funny, acerbic, and moving film about academic and familial rivalry. That film, too, featured a large-scale performance by Ashkenazi, who is good at both expansive gestures and seething introspection. As Micha, he shows you a greedy, preening gourmand who loves fine chocolate and the chance to chat up the woman who sells it; a dedicated but nervous public servant, who can be tempted by a designer suit but leaps straight out of its trousers when he sees the price; an ambitious politician who sometimes gets tired of himself after a long day and just wants to talk with a harmless Norman; a worldly philosopher who, in his hammiest moments as a political leader (and Ashkenazi’s as an actor), bellows his principle of duplicity, triplicity, quadruplicity in state affairs. He’s going to compromise with everybody, Micha shouts at his inner circle, because the opposite of compromise isn’t integrity—it’s death.

All of these different aspects of Micha are of course one, and they’re also one with Norman’s drive to achieve happiness for himself by first making everyone around him happy, no matter how many lies it takes. He’s the marginally shabby American doppelgänger of Micha, chasing the respect that his counterpart also craves (but has won), offering promises and telling tales just as freely (though Micha has far more ability to make his words stick). It makes all the difference that Cedar and his producer, Oren Moverman, cast Richard Gere as Norman, a role that converts the remaining residue of this actor’s vanity into pathos and forgivable folly. No matter how Gere hunches and cranes his neck, no matter how he holds himself stiff against the assaults on Norman’s dignity, you see beneath the surface someone who knows he won the lottery for good looks. Gere lets just enough memory of that physical grace shine through to make you wonder how Norman has entered late middle age with no assets other than his wits, plus the unshakable conviction that his absence from higher circles must be a mistake.

It’s a pity that he has to be disillusioned on that account. What’s even more painful is that his expansive fantasies are stripped from him in the windowless confines of a bureaucrat’s office—or is it an interrogation room?—where his glowing visions of both himself and the State of Israel are revealed to be no more substantial than the tourism posters tacked mockingly high on the walls. Neon-colored fish dart in the clear water above Norman; an implacable force reaches across the desk. Realpolitik is cold, and so are the mechanics of Cedar’s plot.

But in its spirit, the film is wonderfully, improbably generous—just like its none-too-honest hero. Norman is the fable of a man who desperately wants to be recognized but abandons this modest, wistful goal so that others may thrive. At a time when big names are spelled everywhere on the walls of buildings, Norman is a movie lovingly dedicated to the virtues (sometimes very well hidden) of the small, the compromised, and the anonymous.

Some people—not everyone, of course, but a large enough group, with members around the world—believe that the ultimate form of recognition is an obituary in The New York Times, incontrovertible proof that a life has mattered. If the stiff is famous, the Times obit will be instructive and pleasingly nostalgic, filling in details that you didn’t know and calling up reminiscences from your own life. If the subject is someone previously unknown, the obituary will bring the excitement of discovery. Obits edify, astonish, refresh, console (after all, you’re not the one who’s gone), and reaffirm day by day that individuals still count for something, though some more than others. I know quite a few people—my wife, for example, a lively and sociable person with nothing morbid about her—who cheerfully start each day with the Times obituary page.

Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit shares some of the virtues of this minor literary form and of the writers who practice it at the Times. Her film believes in curiosity, anecdote, and concision, the detail that encapsulates and the window that opens onto history. Borrowing from accounts published in the Times as well as archival images, Gould entertainingly sums up the achievements of more than a dozen of the departed, while also bringing to life the personalities, opinions, and work habits of another half-dozen people who are with us still: the staff of the Times’s obituary department.

It is one of the few such departments that survive in today’s newspapers—which is odd, in its way, since the genre is arguably more vital than ever. Margalit Fox, who comes across in her interviews as the most willing theorist on the staff and perhaps its most inventive stylist, proposes that obituaries are now free to be “just as swaggering and rollicking as their subjects.” And why not? After the writer has satisfied the minimum requirements—supplying a name, age, and confirmation of the person’s passing—the article should have “next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with the life.”

A similar idea, though given different emphasis, comes from the calm and measured Bruce Weber, who is shown working throughout a single day on the obituary of William P. Wilson, John F. Kennedy’s television consultant for his presidential debate with Richard Nixon. To tell an engaging story, Weber explains, the article will have to teach a little history to Times readers, so he’s taking the risk of writing two paragraphs of narrative about the debate before even mentioning Wilson. The headline, Weber says, will take care of the fact that somebody’s dead, so he needn’t worry about that. All he’s got to do after sitting down at his desk in the morning is to interview the widow and gather sources; make himself an instant expert on a topic he’s never written about before; give his editor, William McDonald, enough detail to present at the Page 1 meeting at 4 pm; and deliver a first-rate finished article by six. Weber goes to the coffee machine a lot.

Insights like these make Obit a remarkably good film about the craft of writing. You learn about news judgment (which is to say, why former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the guy who invented the Slinky both deserved Times obituaries), problems of length (“I don’t have time to write it short”), and the challenge of matching style to substance (Paul Vitello, assigned to memorialize the 1960s advertising executive Dick Rich, mulls over verbal equivalents for the images in his subject’s best-known TV commercials). Problems specific to the genre also figure into the story. On a good day, Weber says, you come to the office and ask, “Who died?” On a bad day, someone as famous as Robin Williams or Prince dies an hour or two before the print edition closes, and because the death is unexpected, the Times has nothing prepared on which to base your article.

Those advance obituaries, more than a thousand of them, are kept with millions of other items in the morgue, which is stored off-site because the sheer weight would “pancake the floors” of the Times Company’s skyscraper. So says Jeff Roth, the sole remaining employee at the morgue and one of the film’s most demonstrative talkers. A slim, 40-ish fellow who puts on a white shirt and tie to work alone among the file cabinets, Roth may say the most of anyone about institutional change at the Times, as the guardian of its yellowing and labyrinthine history. Writers and editors deal with the evolving problems of a digital, 24-hour newsroom; Roth deals with materials that are obsolete but still indispensable, filed in overlapping generations of systems that no one living understands. He sounds perpetually amazed.

I was amazed, too, and often delighted by Obit. Now that I’ve made that recommendation, professional ethics compel me to state that my boss, Katrina vanden Heuvel, is co–executive producer of the film. But I didn’t find that out until the closing credits, so you might say it’s a dead issue.

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