The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

Here I thought Scorsese had already made a trilogy with GOODFELLAS, CASINO, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. The three films chart criminal enterprise at street level (illegitimate), corporate level (semi-legitimate), and systemic institutional level (legitimate), respectively. In each case, they leave the protagonist spiritually neutered in the final reel: not dead or imprisoned for life like so many of their contemporaries, but forced to give up the razor's edge of their glamorous life of crime to become a "regular schnook". Now we have THE IRISHMAN, which either supplants THE WOLF OF WALL STREET as the third film in the trilogy, or instead acts as a fourth film in a quadrilogy, the depiction of criminal enterprise now addressing the highest levels of federal political power (beyond questions of legitimacy?). Consistent with the themes of Scorsese's previous films in this informal series, THE IRISHMAN's Frank Sheeran concludes the film a hollow shell. But where Henry Hill, Ace Rothstein, and Jordan Belfort will live to see another day, albeit with a hindered lifestyle, Frank Sheeran faces the finality of death itself as the credits roll. THE IRISHMAN is thus positioned as a kind of ultimate statement on Scorsese's most distinctly Scorsesian brand of story in a long and distinguished career. This is a late period masterpiece from one of the best to ever do it.

"Leave the door open a little, I don't like it to be closed all the way."

Also similar to GOODFELLAS, CASINO, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, is THE IRISHMAN's rooting in a real historical figure and real historical events. The film tells the life story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), WWII veteran turned truck driver turned mafia heavy turned high-ranking Teamster official, who befriends and acts as a right-hand man for notorious Teamster Union President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film pegs Hoffa circa the early 1960s as the second-most powerful man in America, and that's probably not far from the truth. As Hoffa frequently explicates throughout: if you own it, a truck brought it to you. The Teamsters controlled the trucking industry, and had the power to grind the American economy to a halt. We flash back occasionally to Sheeran's service in the Italian campaign of WWII, where he developed a talent for killing in cold blood. And these are revealing snippets: Sheeran is a man who craves marching orders, wanting nothing more than to conform to a hierarchical structure and do what he is told. For that reason he is a compatible fit for both the mafia and the Teamsters. This is not someone who will think too deeply or ask too many questions about an assignment. If someone needs a bullet in the eye, he's a reliable finger to pull the trigger. There's a kind of easy affability about him, an even-tempered Labrador Retriever dependability, that is plausibly endearing to mafia bosses Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), who enlist him in their operations.

This is one element of THE IRISHMAN that distinguishes it from Scorsese's previous crime epics, in my mind. Sheeran doesn't really have defined aspirations or grand ambitions, beyond providing for his family. Nor is he born into the gangster life. Instead he just seems to happily go along with his steadily rising stock, keeping his head down and doing what he is told. For this reason, the final act of the film takes a turn that gives the entire saga a hefty philosophical weight. (SPOILERS to follow in this paragraph.) Sheeran's final assignment is to kill his friend, Jimmy Hoffa. The sequence is staged with a masterful combination of almost unbearably drawn out tension, and moment-to-moment banality (an interaction about a fish is particularly excruciating). Sheeran remains incredibly hard to read throughout: he does petition the bosses for a pardon for Jimmy before leaving to do the job, but he carries out the hit with cool detachment, and is mostly inscrutable afterwards. An aftermath scene where he attempts to comfort Jimmy's wife through a stammering phone-call suggests some level of internal remorse, but it's filtered through a layer of deception. We know that he's performing consolation, so his blubbering awkwardness can't be taken at face value as actual sorrow.

I suspect the last act of the film will bore some viewers, but it's the key to understanding the story’s themes. We watch Sheeran live well past his usefulness as a mob enforcer, serving out a prison term, outliving all his friends and foes alike, and eventually moving into a retirement home. Here he seeks spiritual absolution and reconciliation with his four daughters, in particular his second-oldest Peggy (Anna Paquin), who remains immune to his newfound pathos. A man who never sought any type of spiritual meaning suddenly finds himself bereft of purpose, and too late, tries to make amends. Peggy was especially close with her surrogate uncle Jimmy, and seems to suspect Sheeran of involvement with his disappearance (she decides to estrange herself from him just days after Hoffa vanishes, in particular because of his reluctance to call Jimmy's wife.) But maybe she just remembers a day in her childhood that a grocer pushed her, and her father marched her back to the grocery store and beat the shit out of the man on the sidewalk. Life rarely offers clean justifications for the deterioration of close relationships, and it is just so here. All that's waiting for Sheeran at the end of his life is a coffin, and the knowledge that he once brushed shoulders with some of the most powerful men to walk the earth.

With the context of the film's final act in mind, the rest of the theme snaps into focus. This is a story about the choices people make, and where those choices ultimately lead. From very big choices, like the choice to end a life, to very small choices, like the choice to apologize for being late to a meeting-- we navigate our way through life, making decisions, not knowing which decisions will blip by with little effect, and which ones will cascade out of control. By the time we have the distance to reflect, it's too late to alter the course, for better or for worse. That's life. And that's history. Tangentially, I've always been fond of a sub-field of (pseudo) history called "counter-factuals". When I first started writing screenplays my passion project was an alternate history of the 20th century that pivoted on the Germans winning the Battle of the Marne (which would have quickly ended WWI, thus avoiding the "Stab in the Back" theory, Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust, and everything that followed.) I digress, but my point here is that history often hinges on small decisions in the lives of individuals that repercuss outwards to universal effect. Thus, a slight delay due to traffic may irrevocably alter the course of a century. THE IRISHMAN attempts to tell the sprawling story of America in the 20th century with dense attention to historical detail, narrowing in specifically on the early 50s to the late 70s. Remarkably, it doesn't feel like it's biting off more than it can chew.

I could probably write an entire essay on how THE IRISHMAN interacts with 20th century history, but one particular aspect of its story intrigues me enough to cobble together a paragraph or two in this immediate reaction to my first screening of the film. THE IRISHMAN depicts an uneasy triumvirate of ostensibly "left" politics that dominate our current political moment. We live in a time of rising populism on both the left and the right poles of the political spectrum. In particular, the labor movement has been resuscitated as a battleground of left politics. In this film, the Teamsters represent the labor aspect of the triumvirate, but in a mutated form. Although Hoffa frequently uses the word "solidarity" to rile up his union, the mafia-friendly thugs that make up the Teamsters in the Hoffa era are a far cry from contemporary teachers striking for smaller class sizes, or Walmart workers struggling to organize for better pay. Many people have negative associations surrounding unions, and I usually find they concern the type of entrenched power and intimidation tactics that are so aptly portrayed in this film. This is labor run amuck, allied with the pure capitalism of the mafia and no longer fighting for the little guy. 

The second and third heads of the triumvirate are not emphasized as much, but they're there. "Socialism" is suddenly in vogue in America in a way that it hasn't been since perhaps the time of Eugene Debs, no longer the Cold War boogeyman that the right has used to bludgeon the left with for decades. Socialism in THE IRISHMAN is represented by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, a kind of background hum of radical violence that threatens both American hegemony and the mafia bottom line. And finally, the third head of the triumvirate is "centrist liberalism", represented here by the doomed Kennedy administration. Although these three sectors are hardly cooperative, in fact actively adversarial for the most part, together they represent a kind of fragile coalition of "the left" in American political life. On the other side of American life we have "the right". This film does not cover the ascendancy of the modern right, which began with Barry Goldwater and was actualized by Ronald Reagan. Reagan of course drove the first nail in the coffin of organized labor when he fired thousands of air traffic controllers (federal workers) in 1981, all but officially sanctioning private organizations to start union-busting and hiring scab labor. As it turns out, organized labor peaked in the 70s, and has remained on life support ever since. It's surely no coincidence that so many of the mob figures in THE IRISHMAN are introduced on screen with captions that mark their dates of death, overwhelmingly in the early 80s.

I'm reaching a bit with the two paragraphs above, and would benefit from repeat viewings to crystallize my thoughts. There's a lot to mull over with a film of this size and scope. It's an intimidating film to write about after only one viewing, but I wanted to get some of this stuff out while it's still fresh and exciting in my mind. Aside from its heavy thematic content and socio-political subtext, it is also just an enormously entertaining movie, flowing from one scene to another with Scorsese's keen sense of narrative propulsion. 209 minutes fly by with breakneck momentum. The performances are top notch. Robert De Niro is probably working at the highest level of difficulty in the cast, carrying the film on suppressed understatement. Al Pacino hasn't been this good in literally 20 years, since the one-two punch of THE INSIDER and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. Joe Pesci reminds us all how sorely missed he has been on cinema screens for the last decade and change. Dozens of other actors of note pop up in roles big and small, and are frequently delightful. 

The much ballyhooed digital de-aging effects are surprisingly effective, and I'm not sure how a film with this particular cast would have been possible without them. Sure, the de-aged De Niro doesn't look like the actual De Niro at a similar age, Frank Sheeran in his 30s does not look like Travis Bickle. (The blue eyes are a big part of it.) But the effects still work. While the younger De Niro is an obvious effect, as the film progressed and the character got older I found myself unsure if I was still looking at an effect or not. Ditto for Joe Pesci, who I haven't actually seen in the flesh in years. At a certain point, I did not know which age the "real", unaltered Joe Pesci was playing. Since it's simply not possible to make a movie like this over the course of 60 years, this is maybe the best solution I've seen to the problem of telling an epic story without recasting actors or putting young actors in distracting makeup.

THE IRISHMAN feels like a culmination of a career that already made a strong case for Martin Scorsese as our greatest living director. The 77-year-old director is still vital in his "late period" works, releasing both this and the playfully meta-textual ROLLING THUNDER REVUE in the same year. 2019 is not over, but Scorsese may indeed sit atop my "Best Narrative" and "Best Documentary" lists when January rolls around. I'm thankful to have seen THE IRISHMAN on the big screen (shout out to the Vancity) in one sitting, but I'll definitely be revisiting it on my couch many times in the years to come.

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