Regardless of being ousted by the Iranian film, A Separation, in the category for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards, Footnote is an incisive study of the classic battle between father and son, especially when the father and son in question are members of the same competitive profession. As the fourth feature from writer-director Joseph Cedar, Footnote is a story that could only be told by someone who has inhabited the alternate world of Jerusalem. Being that Cedar was born in New York and then moved to Jerusalem where he studied at a Yeshiva High School and later went on to serve in the Israeli Army as a paratrooper, the depth and clarity with which Footnote is conveyed could not have been better suited to any other filmmaker.
As rival professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar'aba) and his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), both take a different approach to their Talmudic research. However, Uriel's methods have actually gained him recognition and favor among scholars and students alike, whereas Eliezer's methods have merely alienated him from almost everyone. What is more, Eliezer's most fervent nemesis, Professor Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), is the person in charge of deciding which of the elected candidates in the realm of Talmudic research studies will receive the coveted Israel Prize. Grossman is also, incidentally, the man responsible for eradicating Eliezer's lifetime of work after confirming the results of his studies before Eliezer had a chance to publish them.
For this, and numerous other reasons, Eliezer holds nothing but contempt for those in the field of philology. In spite of this contempt, he is still at war with the concept of being accepted and revered by the members of his profession. Thus, when he receives a phone call from the Minister of Education informing him that he has won the Israel Prize, Eliezer suddenly becomes much more open to the credibility that comes with rising from obscurity.
Unfortunately, the adage, "If something is too good to be true, it is," proves to be correct in Eliezer's case as the Israel Prize committee contacts Uriel the next day to discuss an urgent matter with him. Irritated by the secrecy, Uriel complies with the committee's request to meet with them immediately. Upon arriving at the microscopic meeting room (a setting that allows for comedic gold to ensue), Grossman and the other committee members tell Uriel that there has been a mistake and that the prize was intended for him, not his father. Knowing full well the ramifications of this error, Uriel insists that they all go on as though the prize was meant for Eliezer. Grossman, on the other hand, is vehemently opposed to such disrespect toward the honor of the Israel Prize. Nonetheless, after much arguing (including coming to actual physical blows), Grossman agrees to let Eliezer have the prize so long as Uriel types the judges' recommendations and promises to never submit his own work to win the prize again.
In the wake of letting Eliezer believe he is the true winner, Uriel learns how easy it is for his own father to betray him by slandering his reputation in an interview printed in Hebrew newspaper Haaretz that deems Uriel's work cursory and childish, essentially amounting to nothing in the Talmudic studies field. Regardless of his father's callousness, Uriel maintains the secret, sharing it only with his mother in a moment of rage. Unluckily, Uriel fails to realize the obsessiveness with which his father can study a phrase. It is through Eliezer's meticulous attention to detail that he figures out his own son wrote the judges' considerations. This epiphany sends him over the edge in a sequence surreally delivered through Cedar's direction.
Tormented by the reality of his situation, Eliezer acts as though he is out of his body in the moments leading up to the award acceptance ceremony. Whether or not Eliezer gives in to his vanity and takes the prize is left at the viewer's discretion. And it is this ending that makes Cedar's study in character so fascinating. For Eliezer to willingly receive the award knowing who the true recipient was meant to be would make him the ultimate hypocrite and go against everything he stands for. But to admit the truth would be to admit being more mediocre than his son.