MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
We’ll never know for sure what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, the flamboyant and ethically compromised leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), a union for truck drivers and warehouse workers. He disappeared from sight on July 30, 1975 following a meeting in Detroit. Eventually, Hoffa was declared dead although conclusive evidence regarding his passing remains elusive.
That hasn’t stopped folks from claiming to know the true story, including Frank Sheeran (De Niro), whose memoir was featured in Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses (the original title for this film which still shows onscreen on the opening and closing credits). In that book, Sheeran claims responsibility for Hoffa’s murder. Since no one goes to jail for implicating dead people for an unprovable crime, there have been scores of other theories. But Sheeran’s tale is the one played out in Martin Scorsese’s 3 ½ hour-long The Irishman; that’s the story we’re sticking to.
And The Irishman is quite a story. Beginning with a long tracking shot through the hallways of a nursing home, we meet Frank (now living with cancer and close to his own end) face-to-face as he begins to recount a journey through the past. The first flashback will tell the story about how Frank, his close friend and partner Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their two wives (Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci) take a road trip to Detroit (including a plane ride from Port Clinton, Ohio!) to meet up with Hoffa. The second story will show how Frank, a WWII veteran and truck driver, will meet Russell and become involved eventually with organized crime and the Mob-influenced reign of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The three threads circle back upon one another and weave a braid of history, violence, family, moral compromise, faded legacies and tarnished glory. In spite of its long length (short by Netflix binging standards), the movie is consistently entertaining and rarely boring – although the elegiac ending is a tad drawn-out.
The film reminds us that organized crime lasted as long as it did due to good lawyers and folks in high places – including a couple of Presidents – who were willing to cut deals at the same time that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were trying to convict and sentence the guilty. Like Scorsese’s previous gangster pictures Goodfellas and Casino and Francis Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy, crime is presented as a part of the American Way of Life. Using a clever editing gimmick, The Irishman reveals the violent end of some of the main characters at different parts of the movie. And the glaring gaze and unspoken judgement of Frank’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin) keeps things real.
While the film wisely shows the audience that there has never been a time in history in which power has not tarnished people, I wonder what the future holds when so many of our world leaders have revealed their easy corruptibility. The Irishman is bold enough to ponder how our lives will look in total when our days on earth are ended. To quote Bob Dylan, “those who aren’t busy living are busy dying”. The Irishman is a funeral dirge for the era of the gangsters. Sadly, there are always rascals ready to take over.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: An epic film about moral corruption that is also surprisingly unsparing about the price we pay for our duplicity in sin.
Four pitchforks: Pervasive swearing; brief, brutal scenes of violence; most of the seven deadly sins.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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