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Scorsese’s The Irishman

[1]2,824 words

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a return to well-trod ground – not just for the director, but for the actors concerned as well, not to mention Hollywood. It’s an organized crime story, the twist being that it has a political aspect to it as well. The cast is a veritable reunion of all the still-living actors who have played famous Italian-American mobsters in cinema or television over the past half-century: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, and last but certainly not least the Godfather himself, Al Pacino.

These master thespians all comport themselves adequately, although one can’t help but feel that they’re all playing roles they’ve already played several times before. (And given that most of them are now pushing 80, they’re only believable in their roles with the aid of digital age reversal – and in the occasional physical action sequences they’re in, even the digital effects can’t hide the dissonance.)

The first third of the film, while engaging and well-filmed, feels like a rehash of every mafia film since The Godfather: Struggling, working-class European immigrants – or sons of immigrants, in this case – discover that the only way they can make it out of the lowly station life has dealt them is to hook up with the mob. In this particular story, the narrative focuses on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an Irish/Swedish-American truck driver from Philadelphia and Second World War veteran – nicknamed “The Irishman” by his Italian literal partners in crime – who begins his career by stealing some of the prime steaks he is transporting for the trucking company he works for and selling them to high-end clients. This soon brings him into contact with organized crime elements, and before long, he becomes a hitman for them.

The film is mostly told in medias res by Sheeran, relating his life story while sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home near the end of his life. Uniquely, the story of Sheeran’s life is framed by a second narrative as well, in what at first appears to be Sheeran taking an innocuous drive to attend a friend’s wedding with his closest colleague, Russell Bufalino (Pesci), in the passenger seat – which is actually, as we discover later, taking place during the events of late July 1975 surrounding Jimmy Hoffa’s famously unsolved disappearance. (There be spoilers ahead.)

Frank Sheeran, like all of the film’s other major characters, was an actual person, and The Irishman itself is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 biography of Sheeran entitled I Heard You Paint Houses (supposedly a mafia code phrase for hitmen), which Brandt claims was itself based on conversations he had with Sheeran prior to his death in 2003. It should be noted that while elements of this book have been independently corroborated, some of them – especially its more controversial assertions – have been disputed. Sheeran, conveniently for Brandt, hasn’t been around since the book’s publication to affirm or deny its contents. I haven’t read this book, however, so this review is an evaluation of the film’s merits rather than its historical accuracy.

To return to the film’s narrative, the first third depicts Sheeran’s rise to prominence within Pennsylvania’s Bufalino crime family as a hitman. We are told that Sheeran made such a good executioner because he had been ordered to execute German prisoners of war so often during the war that he eventually grew indifferent to the exercise (something that the real-life Sheeran similarly claimed).

There’s really nothing in this part of the film that we haven’t seen before in Scorsese’s earlier mafia films such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. And just as in those previous films, we are treated to several slow tracking shots of brutal mob violence contrasted with innocent popular music from the era.

Indeed, The Irishman steals even from the mafia films of other directors, most especially The Godfather. There are several lines of paraphrased dialogue from the latter; the one that sticks in my mind is when Sheeran, in a voice-over, tells us that he didn’t equip a handgun that he uses in an assassination with a silencer because it’s better to leave it noisy so that it scares the bystanders away. Anyone who has seen The Godfather will remember the famous line when Peter Clemenza tells Michael Corleone (Pacino) that he is leaving a silencer off a handgun that he is giving to Michael to use in a hit because “it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away.” As it’s not a crucial plot point, it’s unclear why Scorsese felt the need to include a line that so obviously repeats one of the most well-known films in cinematic history. And the same sort of repetition occurs a number of times.

The next act sees Sheeran assigned as a bodyguard to the Buffalinos’ most prominent ally, Jimmy Hoffa, the famous President of the Teamsters Union who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975 (as the film never tires of reminding us). Being forced to spend a great deal of time together, the two become close friends, with Sheeran becoming an unofficial advisor to him. Sheeran and Hoffa’s families also grow close. We learn that Sheeran is estranged from his youngest daughter, Peggy, given his violent temperament and double life, but she soon takes a strong shine to Hoffa, who is more of an ideal father figure given that he is an idealistic crusader who dwells in the public eye rather than the shadows.

Like all of Scorsese’s crime films, The Irishman is really exclusively a story of men. All of the main characters are married and have children, but as in the earlier films, they are reduced to little more than props, having no significant dialogue whatsoever and rarely interacting with the story in any significant way. (I suppose Scorsese can get away with such blatant misogyny in the age of #metoo since, after all, these are all supposed to be bad guys, so of course they are patriarchal.) Perhaps this really is how things are in crime families, but it seems especially odd here given that Peggy’s relationship to Hoffa becomes a crucial plot point – and yet she is almost completely absent from the narrative. I’ll discuss this more later.

Hoffa eventually encourages Sheeran to run for the presidency of a local Teamsters chapter in Delaware (which he strongly hints Sheeran can’t lose), and Sheeran agrees, thus becoming a member of the Teamsters leadership himself. (The film shows this happening much earlier than it did in reality, however.)

With the introduction of Hoffa, the film begins to diverge somewhat from the usual mafia film formula by delving into the world of politics. We learn how the mob mobilized to make sure that John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in Chicago in the 1960 presidential election, with the expectation that Kennedy would return the favor after becoming President by invading Castro’s Cuba and thus allowing the mafia to reassert control over the hotels and casinos there that it had owned prior to the revolution. The invasion – the Bay of Pigs – fails, however, and the mob feels like it’s been cheated. (None of this is new and has been rumored since the 1960s; it’s a major plot point in Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK film. Indeed, The Irishman seems to poke fun at this connection by having Joe Pesci’s character, Russell, refer to David Ferrie, who was involved with the anti-Castro resistance, as a “fairy”; Pesci had played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK.)

Adding insult to injury, Kennedy appoints his brother, Robert, to be Attorney General, and Bobby makes it his personal crusade to go after Hoffa, according to Hoffa himself because he had donated money to Nixon’s campaign (the film never bothers to explain why Hoffa would have given money to the candidate running against the one his closest allies were supporting, nor why Bobby would have wanted to go to war with the same people who had helped his brother become President). The pressure increases on Hoffa until Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Although not stated directly, the film strongly implies that the mafia and Hoffa himself were involved in Kennedy’s death, which risks sending the film over the cliff into conspiracy theory land. Fortunately, this is passed over quickly and forgotten.

Nevertheless, Hoffa is still in hot water, and in 1964 he is sent to prison after being convicted for jury tampering. He is eventually released after a presidential pardon by Richard Nixon in 1971, but in the intervening years, the Teamsters’ new leadership ends up becoming even more closely intertwined with the mafia by giving it loans out of their members’ pension fund. Upon Hoffa’s release, the organization is completely subservient to them, and he begins plotting his return – both through political maneuvering and through some good, old-fashioned muscle. Hoffa claims that he knows he can beat the mafia and retake the Teamsters because he has information that could send them all to prison.

The Irishman is not the first cinematic depiction of Jimmy Hoffa’s rise and fall – it was previously attempted in Danny DeVito’s forgettable 1992 film, Hoffa. However, for all of Hoffa’s flaws, it is ultimately a better film about the man because it actually shows us why Hoffa was such a highly respected leader by his union’s members.

Since it is focused entirely on Sheeran’s story, The Irishman completely ignores the twenty years that Hoffa spent between the 1930s and the 1950s building the Teamsters from a tiny organization with fewer than a hundred thousand members into a large, nationwide union with a membership roster in the millions – one which significantly improved the lives of American workers. The Irishman brushes past this by simply telling us in a voiceover that “in the 1950s, Hoffa was like Elvis; in the 1960s, he was like the Beatles,” and giving us a couple of scenes of Hoffa addressing cheering crowds of union members.

Scorsese seems completely uninterested in the political dimensions of the story he is telling, unlike his predecessor, Francis Ford Coppola, who turned The Godfather films (not to mention The Conversation) into profound meditations on the morality and nature of power politics. Scorsese reduces Hoffa to just another mobster.

Al Pacino is also an odd choice to play Hoffa. He makes several derogatory remarks about Italians throughout the film, which sound odd coming out of the mouth of one of the most iconic Italian-American actors of all time. Physically and in his mannerisms, Pacino’s Italianesque Hoffa bears little resemblance to the real-life German-Irish Hoffa; most obviously, Pacino makes little attempt to hide his New York accent – Hoffa, who was born in Indiana and lived nearly his entire life in Michigan, certainly didn’t speak or act as Pacino does here (as can be seen in this video of the actual Hoffa [2]). Again, while it is not a very good film, the 1992 Hoffa film stands out for the excellent performance Jack Nicholson gave in the title role (see here [3]), coming far closer to the mark than Pacino (see here [4]).

In the film’s third act, the Bufalino family finally has had enough of Hoffa’s threats and decides to have him killed. The triggerman they select for the job is no less than Sheeran himself; they know that he’s one of the only people Hoffa trusts, and also that Sheeran would undoubtedly warn Hoffa of the plot unless he had already been implicated, as he has been by driving with Russell to Michigan (as shown in the film’s framing scenes) while unaware of the true purpose of their journey. Knowing that the consequences for him and his family would be dire if he doesn’t comply, Sheeran carries out the deed; Hoffa’s body is quickly cremated, the plotters are never discovered, and Hoffa’s disappearance becomes the stuff of American legend.

As Sheeran himself notes in the voiceovers, unusually, no one involved in the plot ever gave away what really happened. Most of those who were leaders in the Bufalino’s orbit at the time of the murder are soon killed off themselves in the ensuing infighting. Sheeran and Russell are convicted on unrelated crimes and sentenced to prison terms; the older Russell dies before his term is completed, but Sheeran makes it out.

Sheeran attempts on numerous occasions to reestablish contact with his daughter Peggy, but since she knows that he was undoubtedly involved with Hoffa’s disappearance, she refuses to have anything to do with him. This seems like a dramatic payoff that the film hasn’t earned. Peggy is virtually absent from the rest of the film apart from a few scenes where she glares disapprovingly, yet silently, at her father, and a couple where we see her enjoying Hoffa’s company. But given that she has virtually no dialogue or role in the story, she’s more of a cipher than a character, and it makes it more difficult for the viewer to sympathize with Sheeran’s loss.

The last part of the film shows Sheeran aging – his wife dies, he is left wheelchair-bound, and he moves into a nursing home, still tormented by his alienation from Peggy and his betrayal of his old friend. This, for me, was the most interesting part of The Irishman, as it entered into territory shared by Scorsese’s most powerful existential works such as Taxi Driver, and his spiritual films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence.

The FBI pays Sheeran a visit, urging him to confess to Hoffa’s murder, pointing out that everyone else involved in the conspiracy is already dead – but Sheeran refuses to oblige them. Even his priest attempts to ferret a confession out of him, but apart from some vague intimations, he keeps his silence.

The voiceovers offer no insights at this point. What is Sheeran’s reason for keeping the secret? Is it out of some Prussian sense of duty that transcends the merely personal? Is he afraid the FBI would prosecute him in spite of his condition? Is it because he fears Peggy will hate him all the more if the truth she suspects is proven at long last (my personal feeling)?

We never find out, and the film ends with a shot of Sheeran alone in his room, peering out of its open door – perhaps waiting for Death to cross the threshold and release him from his agony, or perhaps gazing at us, knowing that we, the audience for whom he has been narrating the story all along, are his true confessors.

Of course, Charles Brandt claims that Sheeran attested to Hoffa’s murder during their conversations shortly before his death – but we only have his word for it that this is so, and others have contested it. Thus, in the end, we are still left to wonder if Sheeran is really the solution to the great Hoffa mystery or not.

Its powerful ending notwithstanding, The Irishman is mostly just history forced into a run-of-the-mill gangster story. I was left with the impression that Scorsese was burning to make one more mafia film, and, bolstered by bringing the entire band back together from his previous efforts, was less interested in telling Sheeran and Hoffa’s actual story than simply using it as a hook to hang the usual tropes on. But Hoffa’s saga is much more than just a gangster story, and it’s a disservice to history to reduce it to such. Thus, I believe that the film is ultimately a failure – if an entertaining one.

One final note I will make is that, as I mentioned in relation to their patriarchal nature before, gangster films seem to be one of the last genres of cinema in which it is acceptable to express racism and tribalism (at least by whites). Hoffa constantly disparages the Italians (I guess this is acceptable in the woke world since they’re white), and Russell rails against Jewish mobsters using choice language in several scenes. I suspect the only reason that Scorsese can get away with this is because it’s understood that these are “bad” men, and hence the fact that they’re using racist language is inherently a denunciation of them. But more generally, mafia films are the only type of movie that still gets made which are permitted to acknowledge the fact that America is made up of competing power blocs based on ethnicity and race rather than presenting some universal, civic America where individuals have been drained of any overt ethnic and racial qualities that clash with one another.

Simply on the level of entertainment, The Irishman is a compelling gangster story (despite being three and a half hours long, I never felt tired while watching it in one sitting), and if one hasn’t seen Scorsese’s previous films in this vein, I imagine one could appreciate it much more than would a seasoned cineaste. And even if one is, it’s still worth a view – just don’t get your hopes up too high. When Scorsese’s oeuvre is ultimately evaluated as a whole, I’m sure The Irishman will be ranked near the bottom of the list.