Amidst the prosperity of post-war America, two of the institutions that reaped great rewards were labor unions and organized crime. Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters Union, needed the muscle of the mob, and the mob needed the easy cash the union could supply for its growth. It was a perfect marriage of money and power—until it wasn’t. The inevitable collision course of these two unstoppable forces is the basis for “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s latest exploration of the darkness at the heart of the American Century.
For Scorsese, now 77, the fascination with the mafia has always been there. Growing up in New York’s Little Italy, he observed first hand the theater of silky smooth made-men and raging enforcers going about their business in the neighborhood. Scorsese’s first hit, “Mean Streets,” in 1973, captured the youthful swagger of petty crooks pushing against their traditional Catholic upbringing. The characters were like kids playing with fire and discovering that it burns. Driven by one of the first rock ’n’ roll soundtracks, it was a blast of energy and danger.
Bad guys like these grew up to be the mobsters of “Goodfellas” (1990) who welcome the young acolyte Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) into their ranks. Then the Mafia spread like a virus into Las Vegas with “Casino” (1995), featuring some of the most vicious and violent moments in American film. Who can forget the sound of mob strongman Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) getting his scull bashed in with a baseball bat?
Most of these mob men were monsters but at the same time there was a perverse kick in seeing people so unhinged operating outside the accepted norms of society. But for all the mayhem and testosterone of Scorsese’s earlier films, “The Irishman” is cut from a different cloth; the characters are old men looking back at their ill-spent lives and the ultimate demise that awaits us all. Much of the violence is now off-camera. Even minor characters are dispatched with on-screen notes like, “died in 1990 from three bullets in the head.” Accounts closed.
Robert DeNiro, making his ninth appearance in a Scorsese film, plays the Irishman, Frank Sheeran, who, in mob parlance, “paints houses,” meaning he kills people, the spray of blood on the wall being the paint. And among the other talents in his toolbox, he’s also a “carpenter,” meaning he can take things apart and put them back together so no one will ever notice what happened. (Another nice euphemism used later in the film: when someone goes off to prison they go away to school.)
Working class from South Philly, Sheeran polished his life skills in Italy during the war where captured soldiers were forced to dig their own graves at gunpoint, then shot and tossed into their final resting place. All neat and clean. The war, of course, was brutal, and Sheeran became good at following orders, doing what needed to be done, and not asking a lot of questions. Perfect attributes for a Mafia hit man in the making.
After the war, Sheeran falls in with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). One thing leads to another and before long he is the go-to guy for nasty jobs, things like whacking a two-bit hood who’s late on his payments.
Unlike the frenetic pace of “Goodfellas,” Scorsese takes his time building the characters and the details of their lives. For the opening of the film, accompanied by the smoky ’50s hit “In the Still of the Night,” Scorsese reworks his much-imitated tracking shot from the beginning of “Goodfellas,” except this time the camera is not gliding into the bowels of the Copacabana for a night on the town, but through the dingy corridors of a nursing home where we meet the elderly Sheeran, matter-of-factly narrating the story of his life. So immediately the tone is elegiac, the bravado of Scorsese’s earlier gangster films is replaced by the tinge of regret, colored by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s over-saturated images.
It is almost a quarter of the way through the film’s three-and-half hour running time before Hoffa (Al Pacino) makes his entrance. To this point in time—the late fifties—the Mafia and organized labor have been partners in crime, accumulating capital and clout. So naturally when Hoffa needs some help handling a situation, Sheeran is dispatched to Chicago to bring a recalcitrant taxi union in line. Not one for partial measures, Sheeran and his crew light a fleet of cabs on fire and dump it in the river.
Pacino, who has often been accused of playing larger than life, fits comfortably into Hoffa’s cheap suits. He plays the union leader like a grumpy bully, a man with a single-minded need to be in charge. Sheeran, on the other hand, is a man of few words, but DeNiro can convey with a frown or a sigh feelings the character couldn’t explain if he wanted to. Scorsese has calibrated the highs and lows of the performances to fill in the contours of the story. And what moviegoer can fail to relish seeing two of the greatest actors of their generation going toe to toe?
In his heyday, Hoffa was an American hero, a friend of the workingman, as popular as Elvis and the Beatles. Having already taken marching orders from Gen. Patton during the war, it is easy for Sheeran to fall in step with Hoffa and become his fixer and confidant. Later that bond will determine their fate.
The film moves slowly and deliberately through the decades like a March of Time newsreel, unspooling major historical events that Hoffa and the mob supposedly had a hand in. The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, graphically aided by mobsters stuffing ballot boxes in Chicago, is a welcome event as Kennedy will surely get rid of Castro and make Cuba a friendly place for mob-run gambling (a scenario also envisioned in “Godfather Part II”). When that doesn’t go according to plan, Hoffa and the Mafia conspire to get rid of Kennedy, the film offering a solution to one of history’s great unresolved murders. And later, an explanation of an equally mysterious crime—the disappearance of Hoffa in 1975—is pinned on the mob. The machinations, based on Charles Brandt’s interviews with the real-life Sheeran in his book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” and crisply scripted by Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”), are perhaps the most detailed account of what might have happened to Hoffa ever put on film. Is it true? Well, according Sheeran’s confession it is, but then again it could just be one man’s version of the truth.
Either way, it suits Scorsese’s purposes as he returns to some of the themes he’s been circling for years: loyalty and betrayal, the thrill of living outside the law, guilt and redemption. And something he hasn’t really looked at before—accountability. Unlike other Scorsese characters, Sheeran has regrets, the estrangement from his daughter being the hardest for him to take. But Sheeran’s family is never as important to him as his work; killing is easier than intimacy.
Toward the end of the film, Scorsese stages a scene that says everything we need to know about the choices these people have made. Sheeran, Pesce in a wheelchair and a bunch of wise guys are sitting around in a prison. Still preening but physically a shadow of their former selves, they’re rolling bocce balls on a cobblestone courtyard. The old game isn’t what it used to be, and neither are they.
Speaking of getting old, Scorsese has chosen to use a digital time machine that de-ages the actors. So we see DeNiro, Pacino, Pesce, Harvey Keitel—another Scorsese stalwart—as younger men in the opening chapters of the film. At first, it’s a bit unnatural looking, especially around the mouth, but it could be worse, and as the film progresses, their age catches up with them.
For Scorsese, and these actors, “The Irishman” is a summing up, the conclusion of what happens to lives lived without a moral compass. In the end when Sheeran has to make a moral choice, he’s tragically lost.
So what can be said of these lost souls? Why should we care about them? Because, ultimately, gangsters get old and tired, just like everyone else. Scorsese’s genius is to see the humanity we share with these fatally flawed people. Make no mistake, this is a brilliantly executed but profoundly sad movie.