“It’s what it is.”
(a quote from the film)
Review by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): A somewhat (or more) fictionalized (hard to know how much, given it’s based on Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book “I Hear You Paint Houses”: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa [using the mob code for “I hear you kill people,” which becomes even more ironic as Frank’s father, Thomas Francis Sheeran Jr., was a house painter] in which interviews with the actual Sheeran have him confessing many mob hits from roughly 1955-‘75, including on Joey Gallo and Hoffa, even though only debated proof backs up his most famous claims just as Sheeran spent no time in jail for any homicides, finally dying of cancer in 2003 in a Philadelphia nursing home) exploration of a mobster hitman’s life, his connections with the Teamsters labor union, his close friendship with notorious Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Joe Pesci as his main mob connection, Russell Bufalino—don of northeast Pennsylvania’s (on to Atlantic City) “family”—and Al Pacino as Hoffa provide as much talent as you could want for any film, all still at the top of their games, along with terrific supporting actors such as Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin, plus a huge, equally-effective-supporting-cast of wives, daughters, sons, other dons and their thuggish-associates (Frank’s properly shown as having married Mary Sheeran, had 3 girls with her, divorced in 1968, then married Irene Sheeran, with whom he had another daughter). You can get all the details you want about this film’s content from Internet searches of its actual primary characters, Brandt’s book, or other sources on the deadly circumstances permeating the lives of such powerful Mafia figures and labor leaders (including the general overlap of these “societies,” although only the Teamsters, not the vast realm of [most?] other union personnel, are implicated) with De Niro in quiet determination mode, always assuring you he’s in control of whatever task assigned, Pesci as more assertive but in a calmer manner than he’s famous for in other Scorsese films, allowing Pacino to be the explosive one, demanding his visions be realized even as his boldness conflicts with his Mafia partners. Although enjoying a limited release in a few theaters (I don't know how many, doesn’t even chart on Box Office Mojo) for awards consideration, it’ll mainly be found on Netflix streaming beginning Wed., November 27, so if you can stay awake for its 3½-hr. running time after your Thanksgiving dinner (assuming you’ll be too busy getting ready for that to watch The Irishman the previous day) settle down in front of the TV for what many predict will be a prime Oscar contender.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: (Given the hefty running time of this film [my review here may take almost that long to read, so settle in], you might want to be prepared for what you’d see [probably on Netflix] so you can more easily follow many events spanning several decades, so here’s a short video [6:59] on 5 key things to know about The Irishman, plus this video [11:13] on the actual Hoffa and Sheeran, verifying that a lot of what we see in Scorsese’s film is based on historical fact.) Beginning with a long dollying shot (like the marvelously-choreographed opening of Goodfellas [Scorsese, 1990]) through a nursing home (probably in 2003, when our protagonist dies) we enter the room of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who tells us about his life, much of it as a Mafia “fixer” (generally killing someone as a hitman but also active in bodyguarding Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa [Al Pacino], trying to keep this hothead from displeasing his mobster allies); thus, most of what we witness is in flashback. The first major one’s in 1975 as Frank, northeast Pennsylvania don Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives are driving to Russell’s niece’s Detroit wedding—stopping constantly for the women’s cigarette breaks because Bufalino didn’t want them smoking in the car—but then we shift to 1955 (this earlier flashback leading to much of the film’s primary chronology, the plot occasionally returning to 1975) in the outskirts of Philadelphia when Frank and Russell met—truck-driver Sheeran’s having trouble with his rig so as he’s lost under the hood at a gas station Russell shows him how to adjust the timing belt—then later Frank’s previously-legal-life (not fully counting his extensive tour of duty during WW II when his unit invaded Italy, France, and Germany, Frank killing enemy POWs on orders; we see him force 2 Italian soldiers to dig their own grave, then he shoots them as they fall into it), including his marriage to Mary (Aleska Palladino), birth of their 3 daughters (he later divorces Mary, marries Irene [Stephanie Kurtzuba], has another daughter), takes a sharp turn when he notices local mobster Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale) enjoying a steak, arranges for some of the beef carcasses he hauls to make their way to DiTullio, followed by his arrest for this theft with some courtroom smoke-and-mirrors by Russell’s lawyer-brother, Bill (Ray Romano), getting the charges dismissed, after which Frank again meets Russell along with Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Once the Sheeran-R. Bufalino connection’s made, Frank’s frequently called on to do some dirty work (we know he can be brutally-tough, based on his clandestine wartime experiences plus an early scene where he avenges a shopkeeper’s shove on his young daughter, Peggy [Lucy Gallina]) which almost goes wrong when he accepts a freelance job from Whispers (Paul Herman) to burn down a rival casinos/hotels laundry service in Atlantic City without first learning Angelo’s a part-owner of this rival, but Russell vouches for him, followed by Frank killing Whispers, setting him off on a long road of bloody assassinations.
Despite all of the above being almost enough to constitute a gangster movie by itself (further, I’ve left out a lot of not-so-crucial-details in this summary section of my review, so even more happens in this extensive plot, such as the time Jimmy Hoffa's [Al Pacino] almost killed in a courtroom [not really crucial because the attempt failed]), it’s all just a lead up to the main story which takes form in the late 1950s (although a major later event is Sheeran’s claim of killing big-time mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo [Sebastian Maniscalco] in Manhattan’s Little Italy, supposedly catching him and his body guard off-guard at a restaurant birthday party, pulling off this dangerous hit by himself) as Frank becomes close with Hoffa, the head of the mob-affiliated Teamsters union, first proving his worth in dealing with a rival Chicago cabdrivers’ union by destroying their vehicles, some pushed into the river, most just burned up, then coming on as Hoffa’s frequent bodyguard. Later, we see the oft-cited-strategy of the IL Mafia getting John F. Kennedy elected President in 1960 by having stand-ins for dead people delivering the needed votes to put JFK over the top, but then both the mob and Hoffa are furious when Robert Kennedy’s appointed Attorney General, given his active crackdowns on all of their activities. Events move quickly in this film, so it helps to know some history of these times including Frank delivering a truckload of weapons in Florida to Cuban exiles who’d attempt the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, intent on overthrowing Fidel Castro (the invaders seemingly backed by the mob, trying to re-establish their activities there under corrupt previous President Gen. Fulgencio Batista), TV coverage of the 1962 Cuban MIssile Crisis, and the 1963 JFK assassination (hopefully, you don’t need a link for details about this national tragedy [or those others], but if so here's one) with brief implications here the Mafia was involved as retaliation for his non-appreciation of their previous support. A more focused aspect of history in this film, though, involves Hoffa going to prison in 1967 for jury tampering, putting him in direct conflict with another Teamsters-mobster, “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham), a previous rival for Hoffa’s union post now jailed for extortion, although Jimmy’s main trouble was with his Teamsters replacement Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) depleting the huge pension fund by making too many loans to the mob. Upon his 1971 release via a pardon from Richard Nixon, Hoffa makes plans to retake control of the Teamsters, but his aggressive tactics bring quiet Mafia disapproval to Sheeran, at a testimonial in his honor, told by Bufalino to force Hoffa to cool his jets, a threat rejected by Jimmy when he claims he’s got enough dirt on the various dons to put them away if they plot against him.
⇒After all that (including a post-prison confrontation between Hoffa and “Tony Pro” in Florida at a failed-peacekeeping-attempt, essentially terminated by Hoffa when Tony not only arrives 15 min. late but also undignifies the occasion by showing up in shorts), we’re back in 1975 where Frank’s under the worst pressure yet (including near-rejection by adult daughter Peggy [Anna Paquin], upset with Dad’s true career, although she has no direct evidence of his many homicides) when he, Bufalino, and the wives stop short of Detroit for the night, then Russell tells Frank he’s going to fly into Detroit on a small plane the next morning to attend a supposed meeting with Hoffa and Provenzano, but in the process of this set-up he's to kill Hoffa. All goes as planned the next day, with Jimmy waiting at a restaurant where the meeting’s supposed to take place but then he’s picked up by Sal Briguglio (Louis Cancelmi) and Hoffa’s duped-stepson, Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons)—who also met Frank at a small Detroit airport—with Hoffa and Sheeran dropped off at a house where “Tony Pro” is supposed to be, only when they go inside no one's there, Frank pulls a gun on Hoffa, quickly kills him, leaves the weapon on the body as he’s driven away, flies back to where Russell and the wives are staying, then nonchalantly attends the wedding while in another part of town Hoffa’s body’s cremated, the gun disposed of. Over time, the surviving mobsters we’ve met all end up in jail (but not for Hoffa’s murder) where all but Frank die. We finish our acquaintance with him back at the nursing home where he has no one in his life (Peggy refuses to have anything to do with him; she was never comfortable around Russell either), assumes he’ll be dead soon, basically accepts who he is, what he’s done with his far-from-originally-intended-life.⇐
So What? Even more so than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino; review in our August 1, 2019 posting)—which runs a “mere” 161 min. with a production budget of about $96 million vs. The Irishman’s 209 min. (you know, much as I want to support my local theaters with encouragement to stock up on refreshments [the main way they pay their bills, as distribution companies take much of the ticket-sales-cash], you’ll have to decide for yourself how much your bladder can handle with no intermission nor any scenes you’d want to miss) and production costs of about $160 million (plus huge amounts in marketing for any film, except those the embarrassed studios try to forget as quickly as possible)—The Irishman takes a well-known-historical-event of the mid-20th-century, pulls you actively into its specifics (although it sticks to a combination of known facts plus other speculations many have found credible while Once … takes great liberties with history [as Tarantino’s been doing lately, so heed my usual spoiler warnings should you choose to visit my review of his Manson-murders-era-spectacle which may also be a contender during awards season, if its considerably earlier release—July 26, 2019 in the U.S.—doesn’t doom it to the Oscar-voters’-short-term-memories]), yet manages to keep you mesmerized with mostly low-key conversations between powerful underworld men plotting their various strategies (except, of course, in Hoffa’s scenes where his never-bending-ego allows him to constantly lash out with no remorse), punctuated by the occasional bombed-vehicle (usually cars but a yacht at one point) or close-up-assassination-hit by Sheeran. Unlike Scorsese’s previous gangster classics (Goodfellas, Casino , The Departed )—or even his powerful, historically-set (mid-19th century) gangster-prototype-epic, Gangs of New York (2002)—this one’s not packed with brutal action but instead is more contemplative, told from the perspective of an aged killer who has little regrets about his violent life (he was just successful at bottling up his emotions, allowing him to terminate others as simply a job handed down by an employer, usually leaving bodies in public places for maximum-intimidation-impact while efficiently throwing away his weapon into an appropriately-unexplored-part of a river [Frank notes the one he uses in/near Philly holds enough armaments to supply a small nation] so the hit’s never traced back to him, despite how well-known his reputation is among certain segments of the underworld), just wants to share it with us in a manner that lets us feel we’re interviewing him, a la Charles Brandt for the book inspiring this dramatized-history-lesson (although we do see Sheeran being questioned by police detectives at times, but to them he’s still not willing to confess anything useful even if practically everyone he’s worked with is already dead).
In gangster films of recent decades made famous by Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola we’ve come to expect situations of uncompromising expectations of loyalty even as treachery, retaliation, and the ever-present disruptions from arrests/convictions by the law leave us wary of whom to trust, anxious about how protagonists we’re conditioned to sympathize with might be undone by schemers intent on taking over a territory, constantly in a state of suspended-tension knowing guns can quickly be pulled out, put to murderous use. In Mean Streets we can easily feel for struggling Charlie Cappa (Keitel), a debt-collector for his unsavory uncle, further burdened by trying to keep his hot-tempered friend, “Johnny Boy” Civello (De Niro), out of trouble leading to physical/legal problems for both of them. In Goodfellas Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is seduced by the gangster lifestyle yet we see how it constantly overwhelms him as demands on his life, murders all around him, drug-addiction and arrests, attempted assassination by former-comrade “Jimmy the Gent” Conway (De Niro) leave Henry a beaten man serving out his life in the witness protection program. Casino allows De Niro (as Sam “Ace” Rothstein—so now he’s been Italian, Jewish, and Irish in these various incarnations) to be the protagonist working effectively for the mob in Las Vegas but constantly undercut by the actions of his bosses, his irrational friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci), and his unfaithful wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) as his casino life ends with corporations becoming the new Vegas landlords. Meanwhile, in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (Coppola; 1972, 1974) we have every reason to show some respect to dedicated patriarch/family man Vito Corleone (older, Marlon Brando; younger, De Niro) even as he carefully rules over a criminal empire, shows his own need for vengeance in … II by returning to Sicily in 1923 as a young adult to personally kill Don Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato), responsible for the murders of his family in 1901, after establishing himself as the new power in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1920 by eliminating the vile local Black Hand chief, Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). Despite this occasional vicious streak, Vito’s loved by his personal family, respected—as far as it ever goes, depending on emerging circumstances—by other Mafia “families,” seen by us as a loss when old age overtakes him. While his son Michael (Pacino) evolves from war hero to ruthless don across the first 2 Godfathers we understand, at first, how his actions are for protection of his family until he becomes obsessed with killing all his “enemies,” so he ultimately emerges as a rather tragic figure in The Godfather Part III (1990) having lost his wife, previously ordered the killing of his brother Fredo (John Cazale), tries to renounce his Mafia life only to see his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) shot dead in his arms by an assassination attempt on him.
(The computer-based de-aging process as applied to Robert De Niro.
Sorry, I've got no control over the separate colorations here.)
Yet, upon further consideration, I’ve come to (hopefully) better see what Scorsese’s after here, including some sense of eulogy toward the gangster genre (for him, probably; these specific lead actors, almost certainly, especially Pesci, dragged out of retirement for this likely-final-role), although in regard to this being some sort of quiet farewell to a formula long serving the American cinema along with generations of appreciative audiences (just like the aforementioned … Liberty Valence), I’ll note in regard to my other comments about the lengthy-demise of the western, American cinema’s most characteristic (thematic conflicts of order vs. chaos, civilization vs. wilderness, more poetically “garden” vs. “desert”), most long-lived genre, as the deconstruction of this hallowed myth of the Old West (full of Manifest Destiny implications) in … Liberty Valence wasn’t truly the end of the genre we’d known but rather the beginning of the end because (for me) the most effective statement (despite its much greater level of violence compared to … Valence) is Unforgiven, similarly, while The Irishman in its (mostly) quiet manner gives us a calm sense of the recognition of how the gangster genre’s also served its function (celebrating the rugged entrepaneur refusing to abide by society’s strict expectations, a person who—as protagonist of these stories rather than necessary antagonist in police or detective dramas—lives outside the law but still represents some nobility of purpose, even if we must ultimately agree society cannot survive driven by such anarchistic attitudes) at a time where criminality’s poisoned politics, government, business, the military, the church so that celebrating criminals becomes a dangerous aspect of our entertainment lives, we can also see Scorsese’s already given us the more brutal aspect of the final (?) episodes of the gangster film with The Departed where the “integrity” of the both law and mob is compromised by “moles” within each organization, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a special investigator of organized crime even though he’s there to aid his unofficial godfather, mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) just as true cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) sneaks his way into Costello’s gang as trust on the organizational and interpersonal levels is completely undermined while people are brutally killed all over the place as the rats either work their evil or are on the verge of discovery; in the end, our intended heroes die as does Costello, with Sullivan killed too—for personal vengeance—by ex-cop Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). Except for the outcomes of these vendettas, there’s little hope in The Departed for anything resembling honor on either side of the law, just (mostly failed) determination for survival. Scorsese’d already shown us the bleak aftermath of the demise of any sort of nobility in the gangster genre back in 2006, he just waited until now to give us the quieter announcement of the (possible) passing of yet-another-American-movie-staple.
|(Not a great shot in terms of resolution, but I wanted to get Harvey Keitel in here somewhere.)|
So, we’ve now reached the end of my blabbering about The Irishman—one of the great cinematic accomplishments of 2019, even if you have to end up seeing it on a relatively-small-screen (But, please, no phones! It deserves better than that!)—with only my standard reference to a Musical Metaphor to finish up what I can deliver to you. I guess one possibility might have been “In the Still of the Night” (by the Five Satins from their 1957 album The Five Satins Sing) because Scorsese uses it 3 times here, matching in 1 film his use of the Rolling Stones’ "Gimme Shelter" (from their 1969 album Let It Bleed; I don’t know when this live performance occurred but I used it because of its length [9:04] in deference to the massive running time of The Irishman), but, honestly, “In the Still of the Night” doesn’t offer lyrics that really comment usefully on what occurs in the whole of The Irishman (it’s just a useful mood-setter for the scenes it accompanies on the soundtrack) while “Gimme Shelter” has nothing really to do with this film but given this is a Scorsese gangster story I thought it ought to be in here somewhere because he’s used it previously in Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed (further, I never get tired of hearing it, even though I’ve used it as a Musical Metaphor 4 times before). However, a truly-relevant Metaphor choice here is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (written by Paul Anka, on Sinatra’s 1969 My Way album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_SixH-y8wI (live performance, London, 1970) because of Frank’s reputed (I’m being tactful) connections with the mob, the reality of him and De Niro being Italian-Americans (despite the Irish role), and the appropriate tenor (Wasn’t that Sinatra’s vocal range? If not, wasted pun.) of lyrics as they apply to Frank (Sheeran, but probably Sinatra as well): “And now, the end is near And so I face the final curtain […] Regrets, I’ve had a few But then again, too few to mention I did what I had to do And saw it through without exemption […] Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew When I bit off more than I could chew But through it all, when there was doubt I ate it up and spit it out […] The record shows I took the blows And did it my way.” Sheeran may not have actually done all he claimed (“To think I did all that And may I say not in shy way”), but whatever he did in service to the mob Scorsese’s given us a slyly-riveting-version of his life which definitely makes for a fine film no matter what the facts may be. (Sparing us the usual “Based On A True Story” opening assertion for such biopics, although given how the opening titles are arranged you’d easily believe this film’s called I Hear You Paint Houses, so I guess that opening could have said “Based On What I Found In A Book. True? Dunno.” Although some would title this film Don't Always Believe What You See.)
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Here’s more information about The Irishman:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4-Ko2KyPko (29:13 interview with producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal, director Martin Scorsese, actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci [sound quality improves quickly after slightly murky start])
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https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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