“The Irishman” Treads Familiar Ground for Scorsese, Though with a Broader Historical Scope

“The Irishman” Treads Familiar Ground for Scorsese, Though with a Broader Historical Scope December 5, 2019

Lately, Martin Scorsese has been in the news more for lamenting the Disney/Marvel takeover of the multiplex than for actual moviemaking.  With The Irishman, he shows that he can still walk the walk and direct a topnotch film, with nary a superhero or beeping robot in sight.  Like GoodFellas, Casino, and The Gangs of New York, he’s back to the milieu of organized crime, but set within a wider scope of U.S. history.

And what a cast of acting legends he’s assembled!  In the leads are Robert De Niro (Teamster Frank Sheeran), Joe Pesci (mob boss Russell Bufalino), and Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa).  The supporting cast – with the likes of Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, and Ray Romano – turn in consistently strong performances, too.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano, in “The Irishman”

For those in the know, the people behind the scenes are equally great.  The script comes courtesy of Steven Zaillian, who contributed his writing talent to Schindler’s List, Moneyball, and HBO’s smart miniseries The Night Of.  The DP, Rodrigo Prieto, has worked with Ang Lee and Spike Lee, as well as doing the cinematography on Scorsese’s last film SilenceEditor Thelma Schoonmaker, now with Scorsese for nearly 50 years, unleashes her magic once again.

Those editing talents are desperately needed, since Scorsese has crafted a Russian doll of a story, told in hindsight by Sheeran as nursing home resident in the 1990s, with a narrative framed by a cross-country road trip by Sheeran and Bufalino in the 70s, containing flashbacks that leap as far back as World War Two.  Got that?  I promise you will:  thanks to Schoonmaker’s deftness, I never lost sight of where we were.

The vivid period detail also helps, whether a TV broadcasting Watergate news or a Maraschino cherry-red Mercury that one would only see on the highway in the 1970s.  And the de-aging technology is impressively seamless, permitting our three leads to play their characters across five decades in a non-distracting manner.

Unfortunately, at almost 3.5 hours, Scorsese yields to his chronic temptation to allow his films to run overlong.  My brain and bladder felt The Irishman could’ve been about 45 minutes shorter and would’ve been the better for it.

Ironically, I didn’t feel this way at the start, even though it takes ¾ of an hour for Pacino to make his first appearance.  Scorsese uses this time well, to center his story on his title character.  Driving a meat truck in South Philly, Sheeran chooses to boost his income by passing along beef slabs to a local mobster.  After getting caught and arrested, he refuses to name any mafia names, coming to Bufalino’s approving attention.

Willing to spill blood on his criminal assignments (or to “paint houses,” in Mafia lingo), Sheeran keeps his day job and his Teamsters Union membership.  As such, the regional crime bosses decide Sheeran would be a useful liaison to the Teamsters’ president, Jimmy Hoffa.

For someone like me who only knew of Hoffa as “that guy who disappeared,” The Irishman provides a fascinating history lesson.  When Sheeran first meets Hoffa in the months before JFK’s election, the Teamsters had over 1 million members.  As their president, Hoffa’s political pronouncements could sway national elections.  He also allowed Teamster savings accounts to function as the de facto lending agency for the Mafia, contributing significantly to Las Vegas’ mid-century expansion.

This bird’s eye view appears sporadically in The Irishman, especially when JFK’s brother (and Attorney General) Robert starts to investigate the Teamsters more closely.  However, most of the film focuses on the interplay among our three leads.  Sheeran is a “still waters run deep” kind of guy, keeping his own counsel as he obeys orders.  Unless he feels dishonored or his family threatened, the lid stays tightly clamped on his emotions.  From his World War Two service, he learned that morality and conscience are expendable, making him a good foot soldier for Bufalino and Hoffa.

Joe Pesci plays strongly against his usual exuberant, hair-trigger sociopathic typecasting.  Disappearing into his character more than his two co-stars, Bufalino speaks softly to his minions, solemnly defers to his boss, and radiates a charm that only Sheeran’s daughter Peggy sees through.

Joe Pesci, as Russell Bufalino, in “”The Irishman”

As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino strays little from his typical late-career roles, projecting bombast, emitting sudden emotional outbursts.  Any subtlety, mostly in his tender interactions with Peggy, is overwhelmed by his power-obsessed grandstanding.

Though The Irishman dilutes its tension with its bloated runtime, there’s still a good deal of suspense on a few levels.  Of course, I wanted to know what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa (at least according to the controversial true-crime book upon which Steven Zaillian based his screenplay).

It’s also exciting to watch our antiheroes striving to dodge the authorities and rival criminals.  This latter aspect is leavened with dark humor, as Scorsese occasionally freezes a scene to give us the fate of various Mafia figures in the frame, whether shot in the head four times in 1976, or shockingly, beloved by everyone and dying of natural causes.

Additional suspense comes from Sheeran’s increasingly conflicted loyalties.  As Hoffa becomes more desperate to retain power, he’s seen as a growing liability to the Mafia.  Whose side will Sheeran ultimately take?

And it wouldn’t be a Scorsese film without an immersion in Catholicism and its notions of sin and guilt, more overt here than in most of his projects.  Steeples dot many a cityscape; we witness the sacraments of baptism and marriage; and Sheeran ends his days in a church-run nursing home.  His daughter Peggy stands in for the viewer’s conscience, seeing all and silently passing judgment on Sheeran’s evildoing and stuttered rationalizations.

Ultimately, this feels like a film that could only – or most authentically – be helmed by a director in his twilight years.  Frank Sheeran stands in sharp contrast to the middle-aged Henry Hill at the end of 1990’s GoodFellas, who misses the thrills and guiltlessly laments his boring life as a suburban schnook in Witness Protection.  Our elderly Irishman instead is forced to stare at the isolating consequences of his choices, even if his near-dead conscience feels little remorse.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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