5/30/2021 OSLO HBO Max
A VAST OCEAN
History tells us that in 1993. the Oslo Peace Accords, negotiated through “back channel” talks devised and hosted (unofficially) by Norwegian diplomats (acting as private citizens), opened the door for an end to hostilities between Israel and Palestine.
History also tells us that that peace was a chimera, snuffed out of existence by the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the 2000 2nd Intifada, and Hamas’ 2006 electoral defeat of the PLO’s Fatah party.
Current Events of the last two weeks confirm that any peace will be hard-won and likely short-lived.
And yet, this is the moment that HBO Max decided to air Oslo, a new film adaptation of J.T. Rogers’ 2017 Tony-winning play, a play that details those “back channel” talks. And the movie, edited to a tight 118 minutes from the play’s original 3-hour running time, is successful at building suspense and drama in spite of our hindsight knowledge of the ultimate failure of the endeavor.
Because, in a very real sense, it was NOT a failure. It proved to both sides that enemies can see each other as human beings rather than the demons they have been fighting their entire lives. It proved that seemingly intractable differences can ease in the give-and-take of negotiation. It proved that the seeming “vast oceans” between combatants can be crossed. And, in an artistic sense, it proved that “watching the sausage of diplomacy get made” can be a smart choice for a play or a movie.
Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson) is an official of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, married to Terje Rød-Larsen (Andrew Scott), director of a Social Sciences think tank. Following a visit to war-torn Jerusalem Ms. Juul adopts a belief that despite centuries of ingrained animosity, both sides want peace, and develops this idea of an unofficial way for the warring sides to get in the same room and “hash things out.” Up until this moment (1992), Yasser Arafat and the P.L.O. leadership is in exile in Tunis and Israeli law prohibits any elected official from talking to anyone in the P.L.O. So Ms. Juul arranges for the P.L.O.’s Finance Minister, Ahmed Qurie (Palestinian actor Salim Dau) to meet an Israeli Economics professor, Yair Hirschfeld (Israeli actor Dov Glickman), ostensibly to discuss a recent Economics paper published by Mr. Qurie.
The whole idea was based on a negotiation model devised by Mr. Rød-Larsen that highlights the “sharing of the personal” – the diplomats will be “left to their own devices” behind closed doors, but when they come out to the “common area” for meals and relaxation, all issues “except the personal” are left behind. It is an effective approach that truly pays off when an Israeli and a Palestinian realize they both have beloved daughters named Mia.
The movie was directed by Bartlett Sher (his first film), who directed both the London and American premieres of the play, and its screenplay was written by playwright Rogers. It is filled with wonderful cinematic flourishes – Mona Juul walking the winter streets of Oslo dressed in a yellow coat that recalls nothing less than Spielberg’s Schindler’s List red-coated girl, ash-filled air in the Middle East suggesting snow-filled air in Norway, Jerusalem flashbacks bathed in tones of gold and Norwegian present in tones of blue, overhead shots of angry men facing each other across a tiled floor --- all moments impossible to do on stage but vividly memorable on film.
It all concludes with the White House ceremony celebrating the signing of the Peace Accords with the movie actors photo-shopped into the newsreel footage of Arafat, Rabin, and Bill Clinton, with a reminder that this small step towards peace would probably be the last, as it was followed by too many giant leaps away from peace.
The large cast is uniformly excellent, with Ms. Wilson, Mr. Scott, Mr. Dau, and Mr. Glickman standing out, with good appearances made in the roles of other Israeli officials (Jeff Wilbusch as Uri Savir of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Igal Naor as Joel Singer, a bull-headed legal advisor, and Sasson Gabai as Shimon Peres, Israel’s Foreign Minister and future President.
Oslo is a dense and moving film about tilting at windmills, about finding a way for combatants to find common ground, about naive idealism finding its way into a hopeless negotiation. It can also be a litmus test for getting at your own biases – I read two separate reviews, one of which accused it of making the Israelis into villains, the other accusing it of doing the same to the Palestinians. I personally found the movie (and the play on which it is based) to be as steadfastly neutral as the Norwegian hosts.
I can’t help but wonder what that says about my own prejudices.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Oslo #HBOMax)