The Irishman is Good, but not Great

The Irishman (2019)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Netflix, 210 minutes, R (language and violence)

Several things before I delve into The Irishman. I recently lamented that Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar. I was wrong; he won for directing The Departed (2006), a fact I had forgotten as I didn’t think much of it. (It was a remake of a movie made in Hong Kong, for heavens sake!) Second, there is no good reason why The Irishman needs to be 3 ½ hours long. Finally, there are women in The Irishman, but they are mere window dressing in a very testosterone-driven movie.

Many predict Scorsese will collect another Oscar for The Irishman, but I see it as a decent movie but not a great one. It follows the succeed-no-matter-the-cost career of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). We come in on Sheeran immediately after World War II. He is driving a refrigerated meat truck and has a chance encounter with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the Teamsters union. Sheeran parlays that into ways to ingratiate himself with Hoffa. Back then, getting close to Jimmy required cozying up to (mostly) Italian mobsters, especially those associated with the Bufalino crime syndicate. For reasons never entirely explained, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) takes a shine to Sheeran and the two become fast friends. Run with the mob and you end up doing dirty work that gets dirtier by the job. The title of Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, upon which Scorsese’s film is based, references the splatter of blood caused by being shot in the head.

Scorsese has long been fascinated by (obsessed with?) sin and temptation. His Frank Sheeran digs himself into a pit of corruption and murder. Like any good mob leader, Russell delegates gory assignments, mostly to Frank. We see doubt and confliction etched upon Sheeran’s face, but we also observe how he carries out his instructions without hesitation. His ‘contributions’ lead to his rise within the Teamsters union and into Hoffa’s orbit. That’s not necessarily a comfortable place to be in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) is doggedly pursuing corruption in labor unions,*especially the Teamsters.

Anyone who knows about the Teamsters or has seen the 1992 film Hoffa (with Jack Nicholson in the title role) knows what comes next: Hoffa’s 13-year prison sentence imposed in 1967, his 1971 pardon (by Nixon), his attempt to reassert control over the Teamsters, and his disappearance in 1975. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, though officially his case remains open. The Hoffa mystery has stoked rumormongers and conspiracy nuts everywhere. Most assume Hoffa was bumped off by mobsters. Depending on whom you believe, Hoffa’s body was burnt in an oil drum, dissolved in acid, compacted with a junked car, or buried–perhaps in Giants Stadium. Scorsese choses to believe Brandt, who allegedly got his details from Sheeran.

Pick your favorite conjecture. You need not accept Scorsese’s explanation to learn a lot about organized crime at a time in which much about the “Mob” was speculative.** Most of what we see in The Irishman is indisputable. In exchange for muscle, Hoffa allowed the Mafia to treat Teamster pension funds as a bank to underwrite all manner of enterprises, most of them crooked. Bufalino’s syndicate was centered in Northeast Pennsylvania and was friendly with the Genovese family, especially Tony Provenzano, a Teamsters vice president. The film also avers–though not very clearly–that organized crime was a nationwide web whose various threads often warred with each other, such as the Genovese and Gambino families.

My digressions point to a flaw in Scorsese’s film. Scorsese wastes time intersplicing a goes-nowhere road trip with Russell and Frank and their wives, and assumes viewers already know about Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Frank Rizzo (Gino Carfelli), Tony “Pro” (Stephen Graham), “Fat Tony” Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba). These names are familiar to me because I am a labor historian and I’m closer in age to Scorsese (77) than to average movie goer. Others may be lost. All you need to know is that there were Mob turf wars that were mostly between Italian-Americans, but with a few Irish-Americans like Sheeran also involved.

Let’s cut to what’s good about the film, starting with Joe Pesci who absolutely deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod. Bufalio was the ultimate behind-the-scenes puppet master. Pesci plays him as a quiet man behind oversized black frame glasses that rested upon a ruined nose that looks as if Russell had been the bum-of-the-month in dozens of undercard prize fights. Mostly, though, Pesci’s Russell is the soft-spoken type who could convince a crow to hand over its carrion. De Niro is also strong as Sheeran and will probably garner a Best Actor nomination, though his laconic performance may cost him come Oscar time. He essentially plays Sheeran as a savvier version of Mob heavy Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons). But really, all the performances are all excellent with the exception of Al Pacino as Hoffa. Pacino chews so much scenery when portraying Hoffa’s legendary bombast that we see Pacino, not Hoffa.

Robbie Robertson certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his musical direction. He composed and performed the film’s theme song and does a superb job of splicing in period music from everyone from The Five Satins, Percy Faith, and Jerry Vale to Jackie Gleason, Fats Domino, Flo Sandon’s [sic], and Glenn Miller.  

Currently The Irishman isn’t on track to recoup its $160 budget. This might not matter as Netflix released it for streaming on November 27, though if you want to see this film at all, you should view it on the big screen. I recommend it, but know that it’s no GoodFellahs. Note to Martin Scorsese: If you have any more movies in you, consider the crime genre done and dusted.

Rob Weir

* In the 1950s/60s, several labor unions were nailed for racketeering, the Teamsters by far the largest. Alas, all labor unions suffered an undeserved reputation for corruption. The Teamsters forged a Mob connection at a critical time when a conservative backlash sought to dismantle New Deal labor protections. The thinking at the time was that government was in cahoots with Big Business and only organized crime had the might to be a countervailing force. These thigs were true, but Hoffa unleashed a wild horse he could not ride as easily as he could the Teamsters rank and file.

**This changed when, in 1963, incarcerated gangster Joe Valachi spilled the beans of the existence of the Mafia and the FBI was able to connect the threads of its history.

No comments: