OSLO (2021), a new HBO original movie, tells the story of the backchannel negotiations held in Oslo, Norway which led to the historic Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
It’s an important story to tell, not only for historical reasons but because it’s one that is every bit as relevant today as it was back in the 1990s when these events occurred. OSLO tells this story in a plain, straightforward manner that doesn’t always translate into a satisfying viewing experience. In short, it plays like the TV movie that it is rather than anything you would see at the theater, and this works against it.
The screenplay by J.T. Rogers, who adapted it from his Tony Award winning play of the same name, is clear and concise in its storytelling, and does allow for some characterizations to shine through. But moments of drama and tension, while there, are all rather subdued, and the whole thing plays more like something you would be required to watch in a history class rather than something you’d sit down to appreciate on your own. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. It does. It just doesn’t come alive like the best movies do.
Norwegian couple Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson), who works for the Norwegian state department, and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Andrew Scott), who runs a think tank, decide to become involved in the Middle East peace process when they are traumatized by an event in which they witness as Israeli and a Palestinian, both young men, about to kill each other, and as Mona recounts, looking like that was the last place they wanted to be, and harming each other the last thing they wanted to do. So, Mona and Terje secretly approach both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, and offer to bring them together in a private spot in Oslo, and by using Terje’s think tank methods, attempt to do something that so far no one had been able to do, reach a peace agreement. When both sides ask why they should say yes, Terje responds that they need him, and without his methods, they will continue to fail. They agree.
The rest of the movie recounts what happens at this secret meeting place in Oslo.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, OSLO does what it sets out to do, which is recount a significant historical event. It just doesn’t do it in a way that makes for a rewarding cinematic experience. In short, it’s not terribly exciting.
What OSLO does best is capture a feeling of authenticity. The whole thing seems real. It invites the audience in and makes them feel like they are a fly on the wall to these secret negotiations. This feeling of authenticity extends to the cast as well.
Getting the most screen time are Ruth Wilson as Mona Juul and Andrew Scott as Terje Rod-Larsen, the married couple responsible for launching these negotiations. Wilson, who was very memorable as the unpredictable Alice Morgan on the excellent Idris Elba TV series LUTHER (2010-2019), plays Mona as the level-headed half of the married team, constantly reminding her husband Terje of what they can and cannot do during these negotiations. Scott plays Terje as the more emotional half, wanting to become more involved and help in more ways than they agreed to. As a STAR TREK fan, I couldn’t help but think of the Prime Directive when watching these two face their own dilemma of having agreed not to influence the negotiations.
There are several other notable performances as well, including Salim Dau as Ahmed Qurei, and Waleed Zuaiter as Hassan Asfour, the two members of the Palestinian negotiating team, and Doval’e Glickman as Yair Hirschfeld, an Israeli professor and private citizen pressed into the negotiations, and Jeff Wilbusch as Uri Savir, the smooth polished and self-assured Israeli negotiator.
These secret meetings were ultimately a success and led to the Oslo Peace Accords. Sadly, this peace was only temporary, and the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians continues to this day.
The story told in OSLO is relevant today. The political climate in 2021 is filled with division and hate, and one of the negotiating tactics used at Oslo was the acknowledgement first that everyone in that room were friends, because if you couldn’t start as friends, you weren’t going to get anywhere. Opposing sides in the here and now would do well to listen to the lessons taught at Oslo and use them.
As movies go, OSLO is okay. It’s not on the same level of the riveting Iran hostage tale ARGO (2012), now nearly a decade old, unbelievably, nor did it work as well for me as the recent Netflix film SERGIO (2020), which starred Wagner Moura as United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and told the story of his work trying to broker peace after the U.S. invaded Iraq.
But OSLO makes up for its lack of cinematic storytelling with concise straightforward writing and authentic performances.
Is it enough to keep you watching? Sure, as long as you understand that while you may have a front row seat, you won’t be sitting on its edge or leaping to your feet.