The Irishman: Redemption Through A Crack In The Door

By

Leonard Zwelling

Martin Scorsese makes movies about gangsters. He also makes movies about real people, including Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ). Some of his best movies are about real people who happen to be gangsters. The Irishman is such a film. It’s not good. It’s great!

Sadly, as I write this, The Irishman may disappear from movie theaters and find its home with the Netflix people who paid for it to be made. This is sad because The Irishman is a big film worthy of a big screen, even if the big screen is a smallish one at the River Oaks Theater where we saw it. Lots of people agree as the audience seats were full on a Saturday at 3:30. Netflix is throwing away box office revenue, but maybe millennials only go to movies where lots of stuff blows up and everybody who’s a good guy wears a cape. No worries, stuff blows up in The Irishman. No capes though.

This film purports to be the true story of a mob hit man named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his affiliation with both the Bufilino crime family (headed by a brilliant Joe Pesci doing his best work in years) and the Teamsters Union led by its charismatic leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, also very good). The film itself is huge, 209 minutes. The canvas on which Scorsese paints is also big and includes the inside workings of the mob and the big news events of the times depicted side-by-side–the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy Assassination. It makes the case and the explanation for why organized crime wanted Kennedy dead (he hadn’t delivered Cuba back to the Mafia as a place for illicit business) and takes a narrative line on why Jimmy Hoffa went missing. This is not an ambiguous film without a point of view. It makes the case that there are no accidents in history. Powerful men move the world with money and guns.

But like all the best of Scorsese’s films, this one has the hero being redeemed or at least keeps the door open to the hero’s redemption despite all the bad things the hero does. This too is not ambiguous as the last shot of the film has Frank Sheeran in his wheel chair in a nursing home requesting a departing priest leave the door open a crack. There is also much made of the fact that Frank will not be cremated after he dies. That’s too final. Even that door must remain open. Just in case.

This long brilliant screenplay by Steve Zaillian draws the line from Frank Sheeran’s early days as a crooked truck driver stealing meat to his involvement with Russell Bufilino (Pesci) and then to his long friendship with Jimmy Hoffa whose Teamsters pension plans funded some of the Mafia’s boldest projects in Las Vegas, Miami and elsewhere. The intertwining of crime, government and unions that was an open secret to us growing up in the 1960’s is clarified and personalized in this brilliant work of art.

It is the tableau of lavish production values, brilliant acting, a great script, and the real events known to my generation that sets this above all of Scorsese’s other works beside Last Temptation, my vote for his best film ever.

In the three plus hours you get the sense of knowing both Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran, while most of the rest of the gangsters save Pesci seem to be paper cutouts, caricatures or mysterious wizards in the dark who have others do their dirty work while pulling the strings of American culture from gambling to government. When there is a snag, the gangsters eliminate the snag, no matter how big the snag seems to be. As Pesci’s character warns Hoffa, “if they can kill the president, they can kill the president of a union.”

I am afraid that those who watch this on television will miss something. This is a film meant to be seen in the theater with no bathroom breaks or pauses for popcorn in the kitchen.

I don’t know if this will win the Academy Award. As much as Hollywood loves gangsters and Scorsese, they love Hollywood more and that’s what Tarrentino turned out this year. There is also little doubt that Joe Pesci will be vying with Brad Pitt for the Best Supporting Actor trophy throughout the awards season.

You will probably have to watch The Irishman on TV. Do that. But if you ever get the chance to see it on the big screen, do that, too. This film is why there are movie theaters.

Leonard Zwelling