Everything Martin Scorsese wants to say in his latest gangster epic, The Irishman, can be found in the eyes of Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy.
The Irishman in question is Frank (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran and mafia hit-man who claims to have murdered union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa disappeared in 1975. He was last seen getting into a car outside a restaurant in suburban Detroit. His disappearance is one of this country’s great mysteries. Some believe Sheeran’s claim, and there is forensic evidence that backs him up. Others dispute it. The Hoffa case is still officially unsolved.
After returning from the war, Frank squeaks out a hand-to-mouth life as a truck driver. To make ends meet, he starts stealing his own cargo. This brings him to the attention of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the powerful head of Eastern Pennsylvania’s Italian crime family. Frank’s life changes forever after Russell mentors him and then introduces him to Hoffa — who will become his closest friend.
Sheeran, is a real-life character who, shortly before he died in 2003, told his life story in Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses. His success in the mafia as an Irish outsider was a byproduct of unfailing loyalty. In this world, a “house painter” is an assassin. Sheeran claims to have killed countless people on behalf of the Bufalino family, including gang boss Joey Gallo and Hoffa, a man he and his family loved and accepted as one of their own.
The overall story centers on Frank’s relationships with his two “rabbis,” Russell and Hoffa, and at first life is good. Everyone’s making money from the teamster pension fund Hoffa has sole control over, which means Frank has no problem serving two friends and masters. It’s only after Hoffa’s release from prison that Frank finds himself in the middle of a deadly dispute.
After serving almost five years of a 13 year sentence for fraud, Hoffa desperately wants his job back as head of the teamsters. The job represents who he is as a man, it defines him, and is the only possible balm for the wounded pride that came with his fall from grace. His zeal to regain the throne at any cost pits him against a mob who like things just the way they are.
While this drama plays out, in the background, at the macro level, we’re told the mob rigged the 1960 presidential election for John F. Kennedy, organized the disastrous Bay of Pigs, and had Kennedy assassinated. At the micro level, Frank marries, remarries, and fathers four daughters.
As an Irishman in an Italian world, Frank is never going to get a seat at the table. He will never be the guy giving orders, and that’s okay with him. The military trained Frank to take orders, to kill without question, and to respect the chain of command. And for decades, starting in the 1950s, straight through to the 1990s, Frank does as he’s told.
Scorsese’s previous gangster epics, most notably Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) — which also starred De Niro and Pesci and are widely considered classics (including by me) — were also true stories about life inside the Italian mafia told through the eyes of an ethnic outsider. In Goodfellas, Ray Liotta is only half Sicilian. The other half is Irish, so to the mob he was Irish. In Casino, De Niro’s a Jew. But this is where the similarities end.
While Scorsese has never argued that crime and violence are justifiable, there’s little doubt the Oscar-winner admires more than a few aspects of mob life. These were men who took no crap, who were part of something bigger, who refused to play by the rules, and who lived an exciting life on their own terms. Sure, it all fell apart in act three, but Scorsese always left us with a sense of nostalgia for the “good times,” those flush times when everyone was out making money, getting laid, staying up all night, and belonged to a brotherhood we nine-to-five slaves could never understand.
Scorsese, who just turned 77, appears to have something else on his mind now… the perspective that comes with mortality.
The Irishman’s opening shot weaves through a nursing home circa 2000. This is where we meet Frank. He’s 80 now. Frail. Wheelchair-bound. And he is definitely no Henry Hill stuck in suburbia longing for the old days. He’s no Ace Rothstein lamenting the corporate takeover of Las Vegas after he and his friends “fucked it all up.”
No, Frank is thinking about Peggy, his daughter, the one who refuses to have anything to do with him.
As much as he wants to, even though he knows his immortal soul is on the line, Frank can’t bring himself to feel remorse for the murders, not even Hoffa. The look in his daughter’s eyes, though… That’s what haunts him, what has always haunted him, and will haunt him until he’s laid to rest in the casket he just purchased for himself.
Another notable difference is that there is never any excitement in Frank’s life. He didn’t sell his soul in exchange for a life filled with gambling, strippers, exotic vacations, visceral thrills, and life on the edge. No, he’s what Henry Hill would call a “schnook” — a workaday mobster who fools himself into believing his work matters, that he’s providing for and protecting his family, that he’s part of something of consequence.
In other words, Frank is too many of us, the men and women who put our careers above family, who lie to ourselves and to our children about how our addiction to the rat race is really our own selfless sacrifice to put food on the table. The truth, though, is that we’re rationalizing. The truth is that the rat race is really about our own narcissistic pursuit of the empty prestige that comes with maintaining a place in the pecking order of a subculture (be it the mob or the office) that is utterly meaningless.
The beauty of Scorsese’s 45 minute fourth act is that it forces you to look back on the previous three hours and realize Frank’s life was all for nothing; that his ego and twisted sense of himself resulted in decades squandered offering unquestioning loyalty to a subculture that existed solely to exist. Like so many “careers,” Frank’s produced nothing, created nothing, built nothing. It was all a self-perpetuating invention, a Potemkin church built on stupid customs and stupid beliefs about tradition and loyalty and what it means to be a man.
Peggy loved Hoffa. As bent as Uncle Jimmy was, she could see he at least stood for something. He supported the men who make America possible, who do the dangerous and exhausting work necessary to spread America’s bounty to every American. And in his own way, Hoffa was his own man. Nothing close to a perfect man, but his own man … and a family man.
Frank was no Hoffa. Frank was nothing. Like too many of us, he fooled himself about the “importance of this work” so he could justify ignoring his family, justify trading the most precious commodity a man has — time — to be a cog in someone else’s gerbil wheel.
What a shame.
By the time mortality focuses Frank on what matters, it’s too late. He knows his only Christmas visitor at the nursing home will be Death.
The Irishman is a $160 million Netflix production and a possible game changer. Although it’s not a total success, the primary actors, all in their mid-to-late 70s, are de-aged four decades using CGI. Don’t get me wrong, you are not going to see the young, lean, wiry De Niro of Mean Streets again, and you’re not going to not notice the effect, but it works well enough that you are only momentarily taken out of the story during the more Polar Expressy moments.
As far as the three-and-a-half hour runtime, let me put it this way: After Thanksgiving dinner, the wife and I retired to our home theater and only hit pause once for a bathroom break and we were both shocked that three hours had already passed, when it felt like less than two.
The Irishman is more than worth all that time.