The Irishman

The Irishman

My first thought when I heard about The Irishman is that while I’ve typically enjoyed the Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro/Joe Pesci gangster films, do we really need yet another one?

But actually there haven’t been nearly as many of those films as one might think. I was surprised to find when I looked into it, for instance, that the last such film was all the way back in 1995 (Casino), and that in fact, other than one short film, Scorsese and De Niro have not worked together on any kind of film, let alone a Mob film, in the 24 years since.

There are Goodfellas and Casino, obviously, and Raging Bull has some organized crime elements to it—those are all Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci movies. There are a few other films that Scorsese and De Niro did that are about crime—e.g., Taxi Driver—but not about the Mob specifically and that lack Pesci. There’s A Bronx Tale, which is certainly a gangster movie, but Pesci is only in it for a few seconds at the end, and it was directed by De Niro himself, not Scorsese. There are a few others you can throw in that, while not fitting in the category of Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci gangster films, also overlap at least slightly with that category. But again, nothing in a very long time.

So even though I initially thought that these guys have done this genre to death, that’s not really the case. This isn’t like the 47th Star Wars movie (or whatever they’re up to by now), like some franchise that jumped the shark long ago.

As were Goodfellas and Casino (and Raging Bull, for that matter), The Irishman is based on historical events.

I usually have more of a problem with “based on a true story” movies than 99% of moviegoers do, as I think there’s something problematic about falsifying history for artistic purposes. For one thing, the number of people who will ever read, say, the most accurate, peer-reviewed journal article or scholarly work on some historical figure or event is some almost immeasurably minute fraction of the number of people who will see a movie on the same topic, and regardless of the fact that “everyone knows” movies are allowed to fudge on the facts in order to create a better story, virtually all of those people will have their impressions of historical figures and events shaped by such “based on a true story” movies.

Here’s a test: Ask people what it was like to work at NASA in the 1950s and 60s if you were an African American woman. Almost everyone who has seen (the decidedly inaccurate) Hidden Figures will base their answer on what they remember from that film, while almost everyone else will just guess or admit that they don’t know.

But for whatever reason, I’ve found myself less troubled by that factor when it comes to these Scorsese films. Might that be because they are of such high quality that I forget to be bothered by their questionable accuracy?

I think I just go into them knowing that they are based on some specific book that represents one person’s account (and that, as I understand it, they tend to stick more closely and accurately to that book than movies typically do). So Goodfellas surely isn’t accurate in all its particulars, but it’s accurate about the gist of what went down with those particular Mob figures in that era, and it’s accurate even in terms of particulars relative to the account of the execrable Henry Hill.

So, anyway, The Irishman is the story of Jimmy Hoffa, of the intersection of Hoffa and the Mafia, of the disappearance and presumed death of Hoffa. And as is typical of these Scorsese films, it is specifically the version of these subjects recounted in a nonfiction book (or at least a book put forth as nonfiction)—in this case the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. Charles Brandt is the author, but it’s an “as told to” sort of book; basically it’s Sheeran’s account of events.

After I saw the movie, I was inspired to do several hours of online research into Sheeran and his book. That he at least embellishes his story seems highly likely. (For example, the title itself is presented as if it’s Mob slang—“painting houses” meaning killing people (and thereby splattering their blood on the walls)—but there are precisely zero recorded instances of a single person ever using that phrase other than Sheeran in this book. It appears to have been a phrase that he or the publisher—or whoever chose the title—made up.)

But as far as the major claims of the book, opinions seem to vary greatly. It has its supporters—and each edition of the book apparently has added substantial corroborating evidence that has subsequently come to light—but there are at least as many folks who say it’s complete bullshit.

Maybe the best known debunking, or attempted debunking, was a Slate article from earlier in 2019. I read it online, along with the publisher’s response. I found it neither worthless nor fully convincing. It mostly takes the form of, “I spoke with numerous people with at least some knowledge—as participants, journalists, academics, members of law enforcement, etc.—of the specific crimes Sheeran talks about, the Mob in general, Hoffa in general, and other relevant topics, and they pretty much all told me that they don’t buy what he says.” So it’s almost entirely of the “appeal to authority” argument form. Not irrelevant, certainly, but not exactly definitive either.

Then again, I didn’t find the publisher’s response any more persuasive. If anything it was weaker than the article it was a response to.

I also read that blood was indeed found in the house where Sheeran claims Hoffa was shot. It was tested and could not be proven to be Hoffa’s blood, but the tests used are not accurate after decades so it’s more a matter of “undetermined” rather than “disproven.”

The Hoffa claims specifically are maybe best characterized as: Not clearly disproven by the available evidence and at least somewhat plausible, but no more plausible than some competing accounts.

But what I find even more dubious about Sheeran’s stories is that it’s not just that he places himself at the center of the action at the Hoffa disappearance, but that he has this weird Forrest Gump way of popping up at numerous other historically notable events, from the Mob slaying of Crazy Joe Gallo to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Does the book consist of one or two genuine blockbuster stories, accompanied by a few tall tales to pad it out to the desired length? If so, is his Hoffa story from the former group or the latter group? Or is the whole book bullshit?

I didn’t end up convinced either of the book’s (and hence the movie’s) reliability or unreliability. So I’d recommend watching the movie with the attitude “Here’s one way these things might well have happened. But there’s no proof, so maybe not.”

By the way, what a spectacular cast this movie has. Besides the aforementioned De Niro and Pesci, there’s Al Pacino as Hoffa, as well as a smaller role for Harvey Keitel. (Ray Romano has a prominent role. I’m not saying he’s a heavyweight movie actor, but he’s certainly a recognizable guy, and he does fine here.) Reportedly Pesci had to be asked dozens of times by Scorsese and De Niro to come out of retirement to do this film.

They’re good, too. These aren’t just big name actors (and a big name director) coasting through the film on reputation alone. The acting is terrific throughout, and the production values in general are terrific, as you’d expect. It runs about three and a half hours—very long for a conventional movie—but it rarely felt overlong or slow to me. Rarely, but not never. I won’t say I was fully engaged the whole way, but reasonably close.

The story is told—non-chronologically—from the standpoint of Sheeran (De Niro). He has a chance meeting with powerful Pennsylvania mobster—who he doesn’t know is a mobster—Russell Bufalino. Sometime later he is defended in court by a Teamster lawyer who turns out to be Bufalino’s cousin, and through him is reconnected with Bufalino. They become close friends, and Sheeran becomes more and more deeply involved in organized crime activities, including working as a hit man.

Bufalino then puts him in touch with Hoffa, who, at that time at least, is mostly allied with the Mob. Sheeran becomes a sort of bodyguard and assistant to Hoffa, and becomes close friends with him as well.

For years Sheeran works with the Mob and with Hoffa. He and his family become closer and closer to Bufalino and Hoffa and their families.

Which is all fine as long as they are on the same side, but ultimately he is forced to choose. The relationship between Hoffa and the Mob deteriorates over the years. In 1960, the Mob prefers Kennedy over Nixon on the grounds that it’ll give them a better chance of getting rid of Castro and retaking their casinos and other businesses in Havana. Hoffa prefers Nixon over Kennedy on the grounds that the Kennedys have it in for him and have been harassing him for years.

After Hoffa does a stint in prison, the Mob decides they’re better off without him. He had done them plenty of good in the past, but as a powerful figure in his own right who could bargain with them as something of an equal to secure advantages for himself and his union members. In his absence, the Teamsters have been run by his hand-picked successor Frank Fitzsimmons, who has turned out by contrast to be willing to be a simple lackey for the Mob. They find they like that arrangement much better. When Hoffa leaves prison and starts maneuvering to regain leadership of the Teamsters, they oppose him. There are some negotiations, some efforts at reaching some kind of agreement, but whereas Hoffa and the Mob used to be maybe 80% allies and 20% rivals, now it’s more like the reverse of that.

Sheeran wants to be loyal to Bufalino and the Mob and to Hoffa, both for the obvious self-preservation reason that you don’t want enemies like either of them, but also due to genuine personal affinity. As I say, both sides are close friends of his, really more like family.

So that’s one major conflict or theme of the movie—Sheeran being pulled in opposite directions by the former allies.

Another important personal story is Sheeran’s relationship with his family, especially a sensitive daughter who is emotionally unable to handle what her father does for a living, the sort of people he associates with, etc. She wants nothing to do with folks like Bufalino regardless of how sincerely they try to befriend her. Actually, the one exception she makes is that she becomes quite fond of Hoffa, which only makes things more difficult when Sheeran ends up trapped between the two sides.

There’s also the struggle of the post-retirement Sheeran and his conscience. Some of the film’s scenes take place in a retirement home where the elderly Sheeran, in failing health, finds himself increasingly lonely, largely estranged from his remaining family and having outlived most or all of the people, like Bufalino, that he had a personal relationship with in the Mob, returning to the Catholicism of his youth and trying to work through just what he is obligated to do, and what he is willing to do, to make amends for his life, including whether he should finally come clean about his involvement in the disappearance of Hoffa and the numerous murders and other crimes he committed.

In terms of the action, the intensity, how fully I was engrossed in the movie, etc., I would rate this just a little behind Goodfellas or Casino. Those are classics; they’re among the most memorable films of this genre in history. I don’t know that The Irishman ever quite reaches that level.

On the other hand, as I think about it, The Irishman may be modestly their superior in its psychological realism. You know, one big reason that Goodfellas and Casino are so intense is that they have main characters who are complete (and therefore simplistic) monsters. I’m thinking especially of James Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci) from Goodfellas, and Nicky Santoro (Pesci) from Casino—scary, homicidal psychopaths.

The main characters in The Irishman are more complex. Each is a mix of good and bad. They’re mobsters and associates of mobsters, so it goes without saying that they manifest a certain amount of evil, violence, corruption, dishonesty, etc. But they’re also people with families who manifest friendship, love, kindness, regret, conscience, etc. Some of the more peripheral characters might be as far gone as DeVito, et al—e.g., Bufalino’s fellow Pennsylvania mobster Angelo Bruno (Keitel) doesn’t show much of a human side to go with his violent tough guy side, but then we don’t really know because we don’t spend much time with him—but Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa all seem like guys you could in the right circumstances have normal, and even positive, relationships with.

And as I alluded to, much of the movie really is about relationships, friendships, family dynamics, human connection, etc. I’m not saying Goodfellas and Casino lacked such content entirely, but with those movies I was mostly on the edge of my seat wondering who was going to kill whom next. With The Irishman, there’s genuinely a major focus on such issues as how an aging and lonely man confronts his past and contemplates what he did and didn’t do right by those he loved.

The movie, to me, is also yet another reminder that a life in major crime is highly overrated by pop culture. I wouldn’t say that none of these folks are the least bit admirable or that they lack all positive qualities. As I noted just a moment ago, they’re presented as a realistic mix of good and bad just like anyone else. But this is not a glamorous life that anyone with any sense should aspire to.

The overwhelming majority of people in this line of work, even if they make it to or near the top, die young or spend the bulk of their life in prison. You might (if you’re in the tiny fraction that is most fortunate) get to live high on the hog for a matter of months or years—fancy cars, dames, drugs, whatever materialistic stuff you want—but you’re constantly at risk, constantly under threat, mostly have shitty relationships, are even less likely than the general population to achieve much as far as the non-materialistic things that are of value in life, etc. And that’s when things are going best. Usually they aren’t.

Even in terms of the materialistic stuff, if you’ve actually got the brains, the will, the work ethic, etc. to rise to the level of, say, a Russell Bufalino, surely there are countless other paths you could be on where your impressive aptitudes and talents would secure you just as much money and just as many fancy possessions without having to live every day in fear of being murdered by some rival criminal or being arrested and sent to prison for the rest of your life. If you really have that much going for you—as long as you also have a convenient lack of moral scruples—why not seek to become an oil company executive rather than a crime boss?

I’m not saying that’s easy—especially if you’re starting from the socioeconomic bottom—but it’s not more difficult than becoming a big shot mobster. Unless you’re really something special you probably won’t end up filthy rich on either of those paths, but the costs of the criminal life—whether you succeed or fail—are vastly greater.

When you get right down to it, most criminals, including the big shots, are frankly pretty dumb. Because almost all the smart ones figured out that they would likely get a lot farther in life if they stole in the white collar—often legal—manner rather than with a gun.

Another thing I thought about as I watched The Irishman is what I think of Hoffa—not just in this movie but the real Hoffa.

Hoffa isn’t a historical character that I’ve read much about. I kind of know the bare bones of his biography, of his role in labor history and American history, but that’s about it. And I will say that pretty much everything in The Irishman is consistent with that little bit that I vaguely knew, or thought I knew.

So with that minimal background knowledge, augmented now by this film (with the usual caveat that—as I discussed above—films routinely fudge and so can’t be taken at face value), do I see Hoffa as a hero or a villain?

Any opinion I have currently is very tentative and subject to change if and when I ever get around to learning about Hoffa in detail, but my superficial current impression is mixed but probably at least as favorable as unfavorable. He strikes me as a megalomaniac, as someone who felt that the rules and the law did not apply to him, as a Nietzschean Overman type, but one who used his lack of restraints and consequent power not solely for personal aggrandizement but also to do some good for people who needed it.

Again, maybe I’ll realize I’m completely wrong if I look into it more, but it seems to me that he had a genuine affinity for the working man and a desire to better the lot of his union’s members. He and his corrupt cronies no doubt stole massively from the union, but he also benefitted them greatly through his leadership. Even the horribly corrupt, mobbed up Teamsters union of the past looks pretty good compared to today’s largely union-free environment that renders workers even more hopelessly outgunned by the “job creators.”

Hoffa is one of those larger-than-life figures I find fascinating, one of those people whose nature and circumstances enable to do far more good and far more harm than most of us ever will, one of those people for whom the stakes are very high.

No question he was a son of a bitch in many ways—I mean, come on, he was a labor leader who supported Republicans for Christ’s sake—but I hesitate to write him off entirely. Like I say, he was a son of a bitch who—I think—put his all into benefitting his union’s members as well as himself. At least more so than his Mob stooge successors like Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams, and Jackie Presser.

And the dude had stones the way he stood up to the Mob; you have to grant him at least that.

In the end, maybe The Irishman is more fiction than truth. I don’t know. But in any case it’s an intriguing crime story and at least as much an intriguing human story.