Martin Scorsese’s latest film depicts the Mafia, and its complicated history with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, as a symbol of the corruption of America in the late 20th century.
The Irishman is the latest film from the now legendary director Martin Scorsese. It reunites him with his favorite actor Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, who did Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino together. And on top of that, it features Al Pacino, in his first role for Scorsese. So naturally the film has generated a lot of interest.
The Irishman is a gangster film. Scorsese has directed 25 feature length fiction films. Six of them have been gangster pictures. I guess that’s a lot, but many people seem to think that’s all he does, when in fact he’s covered a lot of ground. But there is one theme that comes up over and over in his movies—the destructive and self-destructive behavior of American men. And The Irishman, I think, represents a culmination of that theme in his work.
De Niro plays the title character, Frank Sheeran, whom we first meet as a wheelchair-bound old man in a nursing home, telling his story directly to us. A veteran of the European campaign in World War II, who saw a lot of death in the service, he got a job as a truck driver after the war. The film shows us his gradual involvement in crime, first by stealing meat from the trucks to supply some local gangsters and thereby make some money on the side. When he gets caught, the lawyer for the Teamsters union, played by Ray Romano, gets him off, and through him, Frank eventually falls in with the lawyer’s cousin, an important mob boss named Russ, played by Joe Pesci. Frank starts to do little favors for Russ, and then through circumstances which are minutely detailed, he ends up killing a man for Russ’s associate, a big shot played by Harvey Keitel. Frank then becomes a hit man. All this leads up to him being introduced to Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt president of the Teamsters Union, played by Pacino. They become close friends, and the film then follows Frank’s violent career throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Scorsese demonstrates once again the polished style and the care with detail that distinguishes his work. The picture is about three and a half hours long, so you get the sense of an entire era going by through the life of this one man. Frank’s story starts with a flashback to a road trip that Frank took with Russ and their wives in 1975, and within that flashback it relates the earlier history. You’re never confused about which time period you’re in—the film always makes that abundantly clear.
The acting is great. Pacino is perfectly cast as the arrogant, stubborn Hoffa—the role emphasizes his strengths as an actor, his emphatic style and larger than life persona. Pesci gets to do something different than what we’re used to. His character is powerful, but quiet and confident, holding everything close to the vest. At the center is De Niro, playing an able but not too smart opportunist who persuades himself that everything he’s doing is for the good of his family. He is ultimately a tragic figure whose lack of self-awareness and reflection conceals an essential spiritual emptiness. The movie’s symbol for this tragic fate is his eldest daughter Peggy, who witnesses his violence and as the years go on, turns irrevocably away from him.
The excellent screenplay is by Steven Zaillian, who worked with Scorsese before on Gangs of New York. The film is frequently very funny—mostly we laugh at the sheer outrageousness of mob corruption. Sometimes a minor character will appear and Scorsese will superimpose a little blurb over him like, “So-and-so, shot in the face in 1979,” or “So-and-so, sentenced to life for murder,” that kind of thing. And we laugh at that too. But despite the boisterous humor of the film, the ultimate message is dark and even despairing. More than in his other gangster films, Scorsese shows the historical impact of mafia corruption—it’s strongly indicated that the mob had a hand in JFK’s assassination, for instance, because of his brother Robert’s persecution of Hoffa and others. The Irishman communicates a sense of overwhelming degradation in society at large. The personal fate of Frank Sheeran is linked in a way to the fate of the country. America, Scorsese is saying, was poisoned by toxic male rage, and we live today with the consequences.
The Irishman is a tremendously entertaining film, but ultimately it’s a work of bitter and unresolved grief, for the crimes that splattered our history with blood.