The Irishman (2019)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

Spoilers, I guess. People still care about those, though if you’re on the Internet I don’t know how you wouldn’t know what happens in this movie. 

There are two good reasons why there are so many newscasts in The Irishman. The first seems purely technical to me; it feels like a hedge against the digital de-aging, a little crutch for us in case it’s not always easy to tell how old Frank (De Niro) and Russell (Pesci) are supposed to be. I am personally grateful for that crutch, because the de-aging is certainly impressive in this movie but hardly omnipotent; the difference between a man of thirty-two and a man twenty years older, Margo Channing noted, is not always easy to see, and it only gets harder when the computers have gotten in there to airbrush out the wrinkles. The second is thematic: the people in these broadcasts are doomed. John F. Kennedy, in all his fuzzy black-and-white glory, is doomed; Richard Nixon is doomed, via the Watergate cover-up, which Frank happens to catch on the news. So too is Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) doomed, although, like Kennedy and Nixon, it is impossible to know while he stands at the apex of his power, speechifying about solidarity as his audience shouts his name. In America we have never had, as the Romans had, a slave to whisper in the ear of the conqueror that glory fades: we have friends and business associates to do it, people with their own motivations and desires whose messages are impure compared to the straightforward murmurings of the already conquered. So it is that Kennedy and Nixon and Hoffa are inadequately prepared for their downfalls when they come, cannot read the signs for they have never listened to the warning. In our mystical shared history, the shady disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa is the equivalent of the shadowy assassination of Jack Kennedy; both solved, to some extent, but never satisfyingly so. In The Irishman both dug their own graves, were unable to take the multiple hints, abide by the many whispers which might have kept them alive. The dooms of Kennedy and Hoffa are historic; they aren’t given little captions like “assassinated in front of a cheering crowd, November 22, 1963” or “disappeared July 30, 1975,” because we all know what happened to them. The Irishman is overflowing with minor characters, important historical players with small roles in what is, for all its already infamous length, a straightforward story; many of them receive captions like that, about being blown up by nail bombs or exploded in their cars or shot dead or whatever grisly way it is they died. Some people are famous, and they die famously. Some people are not, and if they are lucky, they die like Frank Sheeran will die: abandoned by his family, alone in his nursing home, asking the priest to leave the door open when he goes. At least if the door is open he is not the last man on the planet.

Scorsese likes doomed people, and for all the comparisons and takes on Twitter about this picture, the one I have yet to come across is the one that sees The Irishman as Scorsese’s answer to Fanny and Alexander. Like Fanny and AlexanderThe Irishman is a long picture which a fabled auteur made, technically speaking, for television. Like Fanny and Alexander, it is a twilight picture made by his nation’s consensus greatest living director. (I assume that, like Bergman, Scorsese has more movies in him after this giant effort, but it is worth noting that Scorsese is more than a decade older now than Bergman was when Fanny and Alexander was released.) And like Fanny and Alexander, it is so emphatically connected to the themes and concerns of the director’s previous texts that it almost feels like a good place to begin with their work. Given more than five hours to fool around in, Bergman made arguably his greatest movie (though almost certainly not his best), finding room to stretch his brain and bring forth what had fascinated him for decades. If The Irishman were five hours, no doubt there would be more room for Scorsese’s disquisitions on faith, which are crammed into the last act more than they are expounded upon throughout; one can find the betrayal of a historical figure by a trusted associate in the Easter story, but I’m not quite ready to give Jimmy Hoffa that much credit. (How unbearably quiet God is in Scorsese’s work is a subject for another day, but that pretty noticeable too in The Irishman.) The maniac who believes that he can achieve miracles through his own force of personality in Jimmy Hoffa we’ve seen before, in Howard Hughes and Rupert Pupkin and Jake LaMotta and, well, Jesus. The relationship of thrilling crime and punishment alternately bloody or humiliating is here for Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino, just as it was for Henry Hill and Paul Cicero, Johnny Boy and Jordan Belfort. The empirical guilt is one thing, but the personal shame is another that lays Frank low, as it is for Newland Archer and “Teddy Daniels.” The surface features—a period piece, the Mafia, enough men to fill a Republican Party meeting—are here as well, but it’s the ideas that shine through in this movie, just as Bergman’s long struggle with God, his vocal unease with traditional families and especially fathers, and his sympathetic eye to women in a man’s world all come through in Fanny and Alexander. 

Where The Irishman falls short of Fanny and Alexander—and, to be fair, virtually all movies have and will—is that for all its thematic thundering it lacks the requisite grandeur. This is an exceptional picture, but it lacks the supreme emotional moments which characterize Fanny and Alexander, and of course, the best of Scorsese’s work. What stands out after watching this movie is how straightforward it is. The Irishman is about a man torn between who he loves and who he fears, and, predictably, makes the choice based on who he fears. Frank’s personal loyalty to Hoffa, an affection for him that lasts while he evades the Kennedys, gloats over Jack’s death in public, goes to prison, feuds with a vaguely unhinged Teamster/mobster hybrid, Tony Pro (Stephen Graham), and refuses to recognize that he will only become the head of the union again (to borrow a phrase from a different Scorsese picture) “in the reign of Queen Dick.” All the while, Frank’s warnings for his friend only serve to make him meek, suppliant, nagging. Frank before Jimmy’s jail term was a piss and vinegar guy with the Teamsters’ president; he walked out of a meeting because of Jimmy’s frankly hilarious stream of profanity, only to go back in once Jimmy pleads with him. I didn’t even see you! Jimmy insists. Years later and at his own honorary dinner, cognizant of the danger Jimmy is in, Frank tries to warn him to throttle back, and when he does it, all of the macho aggression Frank used to showcase has gone. He does not know even into the morning of the day he kills Jimmy Hoffa that he’ll do it in the afternoon; he lacks the ability to contravene Russell as much as he lacks the ability to knock sense into Jimmy. The choice, whether or not he realizes it when he’s putting a bullet in the back of Hoffa’s head, is made for him many years before, when Russell intercedes for Frank with Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). He owes Russell his life because he is hasty, pursuing money without the backing of a crime family, a choice which, especially if one knows people in a crime family, appears ludicrously stupid; Russell has interceded for him, has acted as Frank’s defense when Frank was tried in absentia.  The movie repeats this idea over and over again. Jimmy will press, Russell will quietly push back, Frank is stuck in the middle.  On the whole, this is effective, but it rarely soars, and when it does one is inclined to give the lion’s share of the credit to De Niro’s hurt face, Pacino’s incredibly vulnerable performance, and everything Joe Pesci does. Although the grind of grabbing for power and influence is obvious in Sheeran, I think it is more potent in Hoffa. Pacino understands exactly how exhausted Jimmy Hoffa should be in all of his scenes, how worn down from the “Get Hoffa” squad or how vexed with Tony Pro. On his last day, he is snippy with hitman Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) and unnecessarily expansive about why one should always pack a fish in the car rather than letting it lie on the seat with his foster son, Chuck (Jesse Plemons). His need for other people to be punctual is tyrannical in the beginning, but the less powerful he becomes, the more that feels like a quirk rather than a demand; he waited for forty minutes, he says to Frank. It’s a joke, and Pacino plays it like the joke it is. All the same, though, this is Pesci’s movie.

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that this is as good as Joe Pesci has ever been. More than anyone else in the movie, what’s happening with his character is answered not through dialogue but through stares. Russell is a soft-spoken person, and Pesci, so famous for all the yelling and screaming he does, is outstanding at playing this quiet man whose silence is a statement of his puissance. The battle is waged within Russell, the movie’s only real cycle where people rise and fall and never do rise again. He can buy virtually anything, can and does command anything. Yet as is so often the case for people who can get seemingly anything they want, the thing he hungers for is something he cannot purchase. Russell is respected and feared, but he is not loved, and he has no idea how he might get someone’s love other than to buy it, which surely he must know will never work. There’s this great short scene in the beginning of the movie which plays almost as a throwaway, in which we see Russell’s wife, Carrie (Katherine Narducci). Carrie, Frank’s voiceover says, is Mafia royalty, and Russell’s marriage to her is like one of those marriages of old between royal families to form an alliance. He comes with his shirt bloody; he lingers in front of the stairs, looking at her. She tells him she’ll get rid of the shirt. He trudges upstairs, and it is so clear in that moment that he wishes his sensible mob wife would be insensible, would ask him if he’s safe, if he’s hurt, would throw her arms around him. She is too cool for that, and it is one of the reasons he looks elsewhere for affection. Throughout the movie his primary target is Frank’s daughter, Peggy (as a girl, Lucy Gallina, and as an adult, Anna Paquin); his attempts to buy her, with sweets or ice skates or, much too much, a crisp bill in the bottom of a package, always fail. She is much more taken with Hoffa, who she gets along with easily; he does not watch her, and she does not associate him with the brutal beating her father gave a shopkeeper in plain view of the rest of the street. The Irishman isn’t The Social Network—I don’t think anyone’s trying to say the world was changed over a girl—but Russell’s mask is done in every time Jimmy Hoffa dances with her, or orders ice cream just for the two of them. It’s on Pesci to make this battleground appear like a battleground, and there’s something very much like a snarl on his face as he watches Jimmy dance with Peggy; no shot in the movie is more frightening than that one, where a man’s death sentence is being signed while he cannot even hear the pen scratch.

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