Is ‘The Irishman’ Scorsese’s ‘JFK’?

Chris Barsanti
Nov 28, 2019 · 6 min read
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in ‘The Irishman’ (Netflix)

A hitman’s odyssey through postwar America, The Irishman covers a lot of ground. There is World War II, the death throes of the labor movement, the Kennedys, Vegas and the Teamsters, and the Bay of Pigs, to start. There is also the Philly mob, grasping, ubiquitous, trigger-happy, and seemingly untouchable, until it wasn’t. Through it all, the character of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) floats like a ghost who cannot make sense of what he is describing but is not quite able to let it go. But then, it would be impossible for Sheeran to put his murderous life into perspective, being a sociopath. Which may not make him an unreliable narrator but does leave one wishing there was at least a second opinion.

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, about the decades Sheeran spent as a Zelig-like mob enforcer and assassin,The Irishman is one of the more curious and hard-to-pigeonhole gangster movies that Scorsese has ever done. Pulling back from the music-strobed buzziness of Goodfellas and Casino, and worlds away from the Nouvelle Vague/Cassavetes jitters of Mean Streets, it’s a cool, elegiac, and somewhat detached epic whose three and a half hours float by with a disconcerting calmness.

Part of the reason for this could be the potential for The Irishman to be Scorsese’s last entry in this genre. He seems to think it might be, gathering in old friends like Joe Pesci (as Sheeran’s boss and Mafioso mentor, Russell Bufalino) and Harvey Keitel (Philly boss Angelo Bruno) to play their roles in the stylized pageantry of cinematic organized crime. He even calls back to signatures of earlier works, riffing on his Copacabana Steadicam crawl in the opening segment. Most crucially, perhaps, Scorsese takes his time.

There is a lot for Steve Zallian’s screenplay to get through. According to Sheeran — the veracity of whose biographical accounting to Brandt has been called into question, given the propensity for old gangsters to inflate their reputations when spilling the beans late in life — he started out running errands for Bufalino not long after coming back from the war. In short order, Sheeran is working with a gallery of postwar Mob luminaries, from Tony Provenzano (the ever-nervy Stephen Graham) to Russell’s cousin Bill Bufalino (a canny and just slightly clownish Ray Romano, who should henceforth be any director’s first choice for playing a criminally compromised lawyer). Ultimately Sheeran is taken on as some kind of combination driver, gunsel, and henchman by Jimmy Hoffa, ostensibly the head of the Teamsters union, but in the movie’s recounting really just a slightly less-violent Mafioso with a straight job who in his mind had nothing to do with “you people” (as he refers to the Sicilian clans running the various crime families he consorted with) and so sets the stage for his own demise.

As Hoffa, Al Pacino hits the movie like a pipe bomb. Next to the restrained Pesci and De Niro, Pacino is a brawler and a shouter, neither of which being characteristics that auger well for a character’s outcome in this sort of story. To some degree, the movie’s Hoffa is actually the most moral man on screen. Larcenous and seemingly more concerned with fighting Bobby Kennedy or a rival union than he was with securing rights for his workers, Hoffa nevertheless comes across as genuinely engaged when speechifying to his workers about fighting back corporate interests. His ringing demands for “solidarity,” and the thunderous response from the men in the hall, are a bracing reminder of a recent past when organized labor was a force to be reckoned with. One of the several unspoken tragedies of The Irishman is the degree to which those men cheering on Hoffa were in fact subsidizing the lifestyles of Sheeran, Bufalino, and all the rest.

After tracking Sheeran’s rise through this world, the movie shifts to tracking the Hoffa-Sheeran relationship, in which Sheeran mostly anxiously sits by and tries to counsel Hoffa from doing anything to inordinately upset the mobsters who felt they had been helping and protecting Hoffa for years and expected total obedience. That was, after all, what they received from Sheeran, who toed the line just as Bufalino told him over many drinks and meals in the glowingly lit clubby restaurants where a good part of the movie takes place.

Next to Pacino’s hooting and hollering labor chieftain, De Niro’s and Pesci’s performances are watchful and cool enough that they almost disappear into the background. Another of De Niro’s constricted and muffled men who don’t seem they would know what to do with an emotion if one ever came up, Sheeran dispassionately recounts his ascension from truck driver to bagman to killer with a quiet pride combined with a certain type of postwar organization man’s obsequiousness to authority. An obedient soldier who thought nothing of gunning down German prisoners when ordered, Sheeran describes his trajectory from truck driver who stole sides of beef to Russell and then Hoffa’s driver who also shot people in the head whenever he was asked in a voiceover that carries all the emotion of a mid-level office worker recounting last year’s sales to his boss.

What makes The Irishman such an odd piece of cinema is that as restrained as the style is, with a long final montage stretching into something like a procedural dirge and Scorsese not letting himself use music as a crutch (not one Rolling Stones song, if you can believe), structurally it is wildly ambitious. Threading the rise and fall of the postwar mob into a familiar narrative about organized crime’s tangled relationship with the Kennedys and Cuba, The Irishman takes a number of hardly settled presumptions as established fact (JFK’s father Joe was a bootlegger who bought the 1960 election for him; the Mafia supported the anti-Castro movement to get back their casinos; JFK was killed by the Mafia in revenge for not delivering what he had supposedly promised).

There are times when The Irishman resembles something of a dark, wiseguy take on JFK. Beyond the wide historical canvas, there is the tossed-off gag scene in which Sheeran — delivering a truckload of guns to some Cuban exiles — runs into David Ferrie (the real-life character whom conspiracy theorists thought was a connection between Lee Harvey Oswald, the anti-Castro rebels, and the Mob, and was played by Pesci in JFK). Scorsese is also trying to build a whole alternative theory of American history, only in his case La Cosa Nostra is behind all the major events rather than rogue elements of the military-industrial complex.

But where Oliver Stone’s movie was characterized by a battered idealism, Scorsese’s is heavy with doubt and cynicism. Just about the only joy expressed in The Irishman comes from Hoffa, who in a scene after he is attacked during a trial by a pistol-wielding man buoyantly announces his advice to the courtroom: “Always rush a man with a gun. Knife, you run away.” The movie’s weariness comes from Sheeran himself. He narrates everything from a retirement home, whose suffocating blandness seems to mirror the blankness of his mentality and morality.

But there is also the sense that Scorsese is shutting the door on something. There is a matter of fact-ness to the movie, particularly Sheeran’s viper-fast killings (two bullets to the head up close, preferably from a small revolver, and then a swift walk away), that is remarkably deglamorized, shocking, and shorn of the need to wow an audience. The Irishman is a subdued and confident gangster epic whose chilly remoteness could in itself serve as Scorsese’s last word on the subject.

Title: The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Steve Zallian
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano
Studio: Netflix
Rating: R
Year: 2019
Official site

Chris Barsanti

Written by

editor, writer, occasional bon vivant

Eyes Wide Open

about movies, all kinds

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