This is the latest, and possibly the last, mob movie from Martin Scorsese, and it’s very well made.
As we have come to expect from the director, The Irishman has a strong script, excellent cinematography and fine editing.
The acting is particularly distinguished, and its three major cast members all play against the types that made them famous in their early careers
— Robert De Niro, whose breakout roles were as crazy men in two earlier Scorsese movies (Mean Streets and Taxi Driver) is the title character, Frank Sheeran, a Teamster who works for decades as a mob enforcer and hit man.
— Joe Pesci, a reckless mafia wannabe in 1990’s Goodfellas, now plays Russell Bufalino, the capo of a Pennsylvania crime syndicate; Bufalino is a very careful man who never gets his own hands dirty but presides over all manner of criminal activity.
— Al Pacino, the very buttoned-up Michael Corleone of Francis Coppola’s Godfather movies, here portrays Jimmy Hoffa, a vulgar man of galloping ego who, in this telling, is assassinated by Sheeran at the direction of Bufalino.
The source material for the script is a 2004 book published after Sheeran’s death and based on interviews in his final years. (A Vanity Fair article this month and a second book, both inspired by the movie, challenge many of the claims in The Irishman.)
A typical mob story — at least in the period between the first Godfather movie and the last Sopranos episode — would juxtapose the professional and personal lives of made men. And, to be fair, this movie has a couple baptisms and a funeral, plus a minor character, a daughter of Irishman Sheehan, who appears now and then with a solemn stare that acts as a sort of external conscience.
BUT. At heart, this is a rundown of a man’s career on the far side of the law. Sheeran is a loyal agent, an Irishman trusted by Italian mobsters. He’s involved with the sabotage of another union’s challenge to a Teamster local, the killings of various inconvenient characters, battles between Teamster factions, and even the provisioning of weapons for the failed Bay of Pigs effort to overturn the Cuban revolution and reopen the Havana gambling casinos, which, per the story, were financed by Teamster pension funds before they were seized by Fidel Castro.
When Teamsters national president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) appears, he offers a complete contrast. He does not keep a low profile. He calls people “cocksuckers” and evidences a growing disdain for the Italian mobsters with whom he does business. He also grows to hate Robert F. Kennedy, the early 1960s attorney general who takes out after organized crime. “That cocksucker Kennedy has got his nose up my ass whatever I do,” he complains.
Eventually Hoffa spends several years in federal prison (“goes to school” in mafia parlance) and comes out determined to regain the Teamsters presidency. “This is MY union,” he says repeatedly. He’s angry at the No. 2 guy who has taken his job and at an ungrateful president whom, he says, the Teamsters helped get elected. There is a hint, not explored, that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy.
For Bufalino, who goes to some lengths to avoid attention, Hoffa gets to be too much of a problem.
Over the years, Sheeran does as he is told and, if he is uncomfortable, he does not show it. He has regrets, yes, but the work he has done has bound him to what he probably would regard as a manly self control. This is subtle acting by De Niro, hard to carry off but very effective, as usual.
The story is bracketed by hints of its provenance, starting and ending with scenes of the Irishman, alone in his 80s and living in a wheelchair in a senior citizens facility.
Through some computer-generated ju jitsu, De Niro looks age-appropriate as a Teamster selling sides of beef off the back of his truck in the late 1940s and also in his wheelchair at the turn of the century. Sounds strange, but it works.
The release of The Irishman in theaters has been unusual, and perhaps for several reasons.
At 3.5 hours, it is much longer than a typical film. This may be because Scorsese wanted to cover most of the moments in the book in order to support the thesis that Frank Sheeran was a credible witness when he admitted killing Jimmy Hoffa.
It’s possible the proposed length of the movie may have dampened studio interest in funding the production. Or maybe there was concern that the film would have limited international appeal — that people outside North America would not care about a story whose hook was what happened to Jimmy Hoffa (who that?) 45 years ago.
Either way, it’s not entirely surprising that Netflix, which is trying to position itself as an originator of quality content, was the outfit most willing to write a $175 million check for a Scorsese production.
In fact, the streaming service designed a theatrical rollout that seems aimed mostly to build interest in watching the film on television at home.
The Irishman was released on Nov. 1 at a handful of theaters around the country. (The nearest to me was in a state college town more than 250 miles away.) Then, last Friday, the film opened in more theaters. Two days from now, on Wednesday, it will be available on Netflix.
This six-day teaser run opportunity seems to have caused a number of theater chains just to say no. Certainly it will be easier and cheaper for people to watch the film in their living rooms or on their computers.
I’d be curious to know how many viewers avail themselves of the Netflix fast-forward capacity to skip past the slow-seeming parts of the movie. (I’m guessing Netflix wouldn’t share such data if it does collect it, however.)