Producers: Gary Michael Walters, Michael Litvak, Svetlana Metkina and Mark Taylor    Director: Bartlett Sher    Screenplay: J.T. Rogers   Cast: Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Itzik Cohen, Salim Daw, Sasson Gabay, Dov Glickman, Rotem Keinan, Igal Noor, Jeff Wilbusch, Waleed Zuaiter, Tobias Zilliacus, Karel Dobry and Geraldine Alexander   Distributor: HBO Films

Grade: B-

J.T. Rogers has whittled down his award-winning 2016 play about the secret talks between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israeli negotiators that culminated in the 1993 Oslo accord to manageable TV-film length, and Bartlett Sher, the director of the original New York production, has—in collaboration with production designer Michael Carlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Jay Rabinowitz—“opened up” the stagebound original to some extent for the screen.

Of course, you can move a play from stage to screen, but however skillfully it’s done, never entirely eliminate a stagey feel; and despite the addition of flashbacks to street confrontations in Gaza, shots of cars speeding through lovely Norwegian landscapes, and conversations transposed to snowy forest trails, “Oslo” remains basically a talk piece situated largely in the conference rooms and parlors of the mansion in which the negotiations occur.  Happily, the dialogue is mostly good, and it’s well delivered in this adaptation.

The thrust of the plot is to transfer credit for the success of the effort to reach an initial agreement between the warring parties. culminating in the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September, 1993, from the “official” negotiations that were getting nowhere to clandestine talks set up by a Norwegian couple acting in a purely personal capacity.  Terje Rød-Larsen, the head of a sociological research institute, and his wife Mona Juul, a junior figure in the Norwegian foreign ministry, determined that only direct talks between Israelis and officials of the PLO could break the impasse, but Israeli policy forbade such negotiations with those considered terrorists.

As shown here, Rød-Larsen and Juul (Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson, both excellent) were nonetheless able to get under-the-table approval from Yossi Beilin (Itzik Cohen), the then Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, to try to set up an initial contact, though his superiors, Prime Minister Rabin and his immediate boss Minister Shimon Peres, were unaware of the process. 

It resulted first in a preliminary meeting between Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw), the PLO’s Finance Minister, and Israeli economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Dov Glickman). The numbers are then increased, as the negotiations move to an isolated estate in Norway, by the addition of Qurei’s stern colleague Hassan Asfour (Waleed Zuaiter) and, on the Israeli team, of Hirschfeld’s fellow professor Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan) and, as the talks bear fruit, by the Israel Director General of Foreign Affairs Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch) and the Ministry’s detail-obsessed legal adviser Joel Singer (Igal Naor).  At the very end Peres himself (Sasson Gabay) must get involved to work out final details by phone with Arafat, who is never seen apart from the newsreel footage periodically inserted into the narrative.  And Juul’s bosses (Jan Egeland and Johan Jørgen Holst) must eventually be informed of what’s happening as well.  

The thrust of the narrative is that solutions to the seemingly intractable issues dividing the parties cannot be imposed from outside—a conclusion some of the interlocutors in the recent documentary “The Human Factor,” about American diplomacy over the years, also reach—but must be reached by the two sides themselves.  The corollary is that a way must be found to offer them the space and time to get to know one another and gradually break down the barriers between them in an environment that’s not a public pressure cooker.  That’s what Rød-Larsen and Juul were committed to providing, acting only as facilitators rather than prodders (though as depicted here they occasionally slip from that purpose), and it was a plan that worked. 

As dramatized her it’s interesting, and often amusing, to watch the negotiators, nicely played across the board, gradually mellow in their attitudes as they share jokes and personal anecdotes.  One bit of business, about how the meals prepared by motherly cook Toril (Geraldine Alexander)—especially her secret-recipe dessert waffles—soothes tempers when they are about to erupt, comes across as overly cute.  But this is drama, of course, not documentary—otherwise the specific issues under debate would be explicated far more fully than they are—and one has to forgive the shorthand Rogers employs.

The film has been expertly fashioned, with Carlin’s elegant production design shot in beautifully burnished tones by Kaminski, the regular cinematographer of Steven Spielberg (one of the executive producers) and the plotline kept reasonably clear by editor Rabinowitz, who also skillfully incorporates the historical footage.  And understated score by Jeff Russo and Zoë Keating contributes to the film’s mood of promise.

But it was, of course, a promise that was fulfilled but proved sadly temporary.  As is so often the case, the film identifies the cause of the ultimate failure to extend the Oslo accords into a lasting peace as the assassination of Rabin and the attitude of the Israeli governments that followed.  But as “The Human Factor” suggested, the accords might have been fatally flawed by a decision to put off too many details for later agreement. 

Whatever one’s thoughts on such matters, however, “Oslo” provides an engrossing, if partial and popularized, glimpse into a brief moment when the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed within reach.  Recent events have once again shown the awful human cost of the failure of a noble effort to achieve that end.