Monday, December 2, 2019

The Irishman (The Movie)

In The Irishman, Director Martin Scorsese has given us another mob-movie masterpiece, a reflective tale about a high-ranking Teamster union official/hit man (Frank Sheeran, "the Irishman," who late in life claimed to have murdered Jimmy Hoffa), played on screen by a magnificent cast - Rober DeBiro as Frank, Al Pacino as Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino. Produced by Netflix, the film follows Charles Brandt's 2004 account of Frank Sheeran's life, I Heard You Paint Houses, which includes his disputed claim of having killed Hoffa - and others such as the famous 1972 assassination of Joey Gallo in Umberto's Clam House in New York's Little Italy and the later murder of Salvatore Briguglio, himself once a suspect in the Hoffa case.

A World War II war veteran (who conveniently learned Italian in the war), Frank by chance encounters Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino and gradually becomes his trusted henchman, which leads him to Jimmy Hoffa whose close confidant he too eventually becomes. A road trip to a wedding - Frank, Russell, and their wives - provides a narrative vehicle for the back-and-forth depiction of Frank's career and family life. The three and a half hour film takes its time (too much time?) to take us through not just Frank's life, but post-war America's mob hits and Kennedy-era politics. 

As I said, the film is long. We are some 45 minutes into the movie by the time Frank finally meets Hoffa! It takes another two hours or so to get to Hoffa's famous "disappearance." And the movie still has another 45 minutes more to go after that. That's one advantage, of course, of watching it on Netflix instead of on the big screen. One can take breaks! 

Mafia movies tend to highlight the mob's routines of violence and experiences of betrayal, balanced by family life - a domestic existence that is never quite normal, but which revolves around the normal events that punctuate family life. As he moves up in the ranks, Frank divorces his first wife for a second, neither of whom has that much dramatic impact. One of his daughters, however, Peggy, seems to see her father for the thug he basically is. Standoffish even as a child, as an adult she cuts her father completely out of her life after Hoffa's disappearance. Hoffa, of course, as a labor leader did accomplish some good for his workers, which Peggy seems to understand and appreciate, and she seems genuinely fond of him. But she has no use for the kind of life her father has chosen and represents, and she refuses her forgiveness even at the end when he is pathetically old and weak.

Forgiveness, of course, can be elusive in other ways as well. As this genre generally requires, the film offers the viewer a predictable range of Roman Catholic religious rituals - a couple of baptisms (performed by a real-life Jesuit, Fr. Jim Martin), Catholic school for the kids, a wedding, and an apparent confession at the end. We don't actually hear Frank confess, but we do distinctly hear the formula of absolution and are left to imagine the confession, the contents of which we have in fact been hearing already through the entire film. Signs of repentance have been few, however. Whatever the real Sheeran may have been like in life, the film's Frank is generally quite low-key about his behavior. He keeps referring back to the war, to how he learned in the war to kill as ordered and apparently became comfortable with illegal killing. Throughout his criminal career, Frank seems to adopt that same approach to the business of murder.  He may have his regrets (probably about Hoffa and also about how his life has hurt his family), but apparently no authentic remorse.

Until, of course, old age and its infirmities take over. What impression are we intended to take away from a bunch of old thugs now barely able to get around or even eat their food, when none of what once mattered so much matters much at all anymore? (The younger generation doesn't even know who Jimmy Hoffa was!) At the end, a life lived so differently from what we judge to be normal seems suddenly to be finishing the way most other people's lives increasingly end nowadays - sick, lonely, left behind by a world that has moved on. 

Frank never seems tormented by guilt or fearful of divine judgment, but he does at the end seem open to wondering what it was all for and whether it was all worth it, even as he still tries to manipulate his situation, arranging his final interment to seem somehow "less final." The smallness of his real life and its lack of any authentic accomplishment (even that most common accomplishment of family) seems highlighted by  the inevitable - and universal - diminishments that accompany aging.

Regardless of how historically true this movie's account of how what happened to Hoffa actually occurred, it is a great film. How historically true this movie's version of history actually is, however is of some considerable controversy. Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, in particular, has strongly argued against accepting Sheeran's version of the Hoffa story. In particular he challenges the role ascribed by Sheeran and the film to Goldsmith's stepfather Chuckie O'Brien, who has consistently denied being the one who drove Hoffa on his last car ride. In addition to defending his stepfather's reputation, Goldsmith also argues that the film fails to address the more significant long-term consequences of, for example, how Robert Kennedy's vendetta against Hoffa helped undermine the position of organized labor more effectively than big business ever could, with consequences we are suffering from today.

All that having been said, historically accurate or not it remains a great film - well worth the investment of three and a half hours of one's life.

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