There’s a bit of irony in all of the news that director Martin Scorsese made when he lashed out at Marvel sequels and big budget comic book films recently. Scorsese criticized Marvel films suggesting that cinema should allow you to “confront the unexpected on the screen”. Well, there’s not a whole lot of unexpected in The Irishman. If you’re a fan of Scorsese, which I am, that is mostly a good thing. The film is not without its significant flaws, and I fear Scorsese may have unknowingly fallen into the same trap as the franchise filmmakers with whom he so publicly disagrees.
I do believe the film is worth your time, and at three and a half hours, that in itself is saying something. Scorsese knows how to open films effectively. The opening shot of the film that pans through a nursing home until we come to Frankie Sheeran (Robert De Niro) seated alone in a wheelchair manages to speak volumes without a word of dialogue being uttered. The setting, which is immediately recognizable to most adults with parents of a certain age, undeniably suggests the contemporary endgame of life—where most people spend their last days, no matter how daring or successful their earlier days were. The fact that Sheeran is alone and speaks directly to the camera is no small matter. He has outlived most of his peers, but, in so doing, has alienated those close to him; the only one he has to talk to is the camera.
Scorsese has always been able to cast fine actors and squeeze wonderful performances out of them. This film is no exception. De Niro is in a huge number of scenes in the film and manages to make us care about him, despite using his hangdog look to express everything from contrition to confusion. But it’s actually the performances of Joe Pesci and Al Pacino that stayed with me the most. Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino, is playing a much more mellow and controlled gangster than the one he played in Goodfellas, and the effect is to make him more, not less dangerous. Pacino plays notorious Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in the film, and breathes new life into the character. Hoffa’s insistence on punctuality and proper dress “for a meetin’” leads to one of the funniest scenes in the film. Hoffa is meeting another powerful union man Tony Provenzano in Miami, but cannot get past Tony’s lateness and casual attire; as a result, it is up to Tony’s driver and De Niro’s Sheeran to try and mediate, which is hilarious as both are semi-articulate at best. This scene also reveals one of the weaknesses of Scorsese’s casting. He has two of the most famous Italian American actors (De Niro and Pacino) playing non-Italians Sheeran and Hoffa. When Pacino scornfully refers to Tony Pro as “you people”, it’s just utterly confusing, because Pacino still looks as Italian as he did when portraying Michael Corleone in The Godfather. I had to look up Hoffa’s ethnicity to discover he was part German and part Irish. Still, the acting, on the whole, is a major strength of the film.
Social commentary is another feature of many of Scorsese’s films, and there is no shortage of it here. As in Goodfellas, there is an emphasis on the ethics of organized crime. In fact, it is so common in a Scorsese film to hear a murderer saying “that’s just not right”, that we might lose sight of the irony here. These mobsters subscribe to an extremely complex series of social mores and crossing them often leads to mayhem. Thus, when Crazy Joe Gallo delivers a very public hit and then disrespects a mafia brother with profanity, he has to pay. Later, when Sally Bugs goes to speak to the Feds without telling anyone in the mob about it, Sheeran rubs him out. When it is revealed that Bugs had informed someone and they forgot to relay the message, Sheeran admits it was “a bad hit”. In other words, a targeted killing can be “bad” or “good” depending on the circumstances and how they fit into the code. This is old hat for Scorsese and most filmgoers who have seen a film about the mob.
Another asset of the film is the insight it provides into historical events. Whereas what Frank Sheeran may or may not have done is subject to much debate, the background issues seem well documented. For example, I had no idea that Hoffa alienated the mob because of his ego and desire for control which conflicted with the mob’s desire to utilize the union’s pension fund for easy loans. While I knew that organized crime was unhappy with John F. Kennedy, the film does a fine job of explaining that the mob believed Kennedy would reciprocate the support he had been given and reestablish Cuba as a place where capitalists and mobsters could thrive. When the Bay of Pigs resulted in disaster and when Kennedy’s brother Bobby attacked organized crime in his role as Attorney General, the mob was outraged (again, violation of code). In one of the best lines of the film, when asked by a reporter how he felt about JFK’s assassination, Hoffa replies “I guess his brother is just a lawyer now”. Scorsese makes a nice dig at our ignorance of history late in the film when a nurse attending Sheeran has never heard of Jimmy Hoffa. The scene suggests the powerful are utterly forgotten or languish in nursing homes (sometimes the same thing) before a generation even turns.
As fine a film as The Irishmanis, it cannot be excused for its portrayal of women. This is where I was hoping for some development from Scorsese as a filmmaker. But he treats women much like the mob when planning a hit, as something to be avoided. Women exist in the film primarily to document the reaction to male criminality—they grieve, they fear and they smoke in their fashionable pant suits. The only female character of any depth in the film, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, is conspicuous for her silence. Apologists might make the case that Scorsese is depicting a world where women were on the periphery, and that might have held up a couple of decades ago, but it does not wash today. We need only look at the TV series Mad Men to find strong and complex female characters in a male dominated world. Even though the film is based on a source, a director always has choices, and Scorsese has elected to continue a depressing tradition of women as peripheral figures who are only present to reveal something about the psychology of the male leads. In one of the most glaring instances of chauvinism in the film, Scorsese takes all of about thirty seconds to introduce the woman who will become Sheeran’s second wife and to mention the marriage—he spares less than a minute for this in a film that is three and a half hours long. Towards the end of the film, in what looks like a tacked on measure to appease, Sheeran talks to another daughter (whose name viewers probably can only guess at) about his failure as a father. She reveals that his children were frightened to death to come to him with their problems for fear of the reprisals he would inflict. This is an interesting consequence, but the four daughters are not allowed much screen time or focus, and the camera quickly moves elsewhere. Too bad Scorsese has not allowed viewers to “confront the unexpected” in terms of the depth of and focus on female characters.
The film also does not need to be as long as it is. I don’t think I’m being unfair in characterizing Scorsese as self-indulgent. How many scenes do we need of De Niro shaking his head worryingly about the growing conflict between the mob and his buddy Hoffa? We get it Marty, Sheeran is conflicted. Judicious editing surely could have trimmed half an hour or more off the film. To his credit though, Scorsese gives us an ending that avoids sentimentality and only hints at Sheeran’s remorse. The biggest epiphany in the film is mumbled and missed by a priest trying to goad Sheeran into a comprehensive confession. De Niro’s “What kind of a man makes a phone call like that?” tells us all we need to know about late twentieth century America. The film, for better and for worse, tells us much about story telling in the twenty first.