Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Irishman

Jimmy Hoffa testifying at a Senate hearing on labor racketeering, 1958

Hoffa leaving a federal courthouse, with Charles (Chuckie) O’Brien behind, 1964

Hoffa, his cuffed hands concealed by his raincoat, beginning his prison sentence, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, December 9, 1967

Mob boss Anthony Provenzano, in the driveway to his Florida home, answering press questions about Hoffa’s disappearance, August 5, 1975

Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, 1970; Robert De Niro

Jimmy Hoffa in 1974; Al Pacino

Director Martin Scorsese

Scorsese on the set with Robert De Niro

THE IRISHMAN                   B+                  
USA  (209 mi)  2019  d:  Martin Scorsese

Scorsese returns to the gangster gravitas of his earlier masterwork Goodfellas (1990), yet it’s slower, less flashy, and without the spectacular visual fireworks that pervade throughout his earlier film, offering an older perspective, as his central characters have been killed off or aged considerably, where the narrative has them looking back at their lives, which could just as easily be a comprehensive overview of everything Scorsese’s done in his entire career, like a personal reckoning, offering reflections on religion, sin, and mortality.  Encompassing so much, it’s a different kind of picture, yet it brings together three legends who have defined American cinema since the 1970’s, Robert De Niro (age 76) as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino (age 79) as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci (age 76) as Philly mob boss Russell Bufalino, coming out of retirement to make this film.  Pacino and De Niro earned their fame in Francis Ford Coppola’s classical gangster saga THE GODFATHER (1972, 74), while De Niro and Pesci worked with Scorsese for three decades beginning in the 70’s, with De Niro overjoyed at the role, indicating this film represents some “unfinished business” between himself and Martin Scorsese as the last of the great gangster sagas.  While De Niro and Pesci last worked together with Scorsese on CASINO (1995), De Niro and Pacino worked together in one tantalizing scene from Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), paying their respects in a temporary truce between a lawman and an infamous outlaw, reuniting again on a forgettable project entitled RIGHTEOUS KILL (2008) that tanked domestically but did better overseas.  The three are more understated than usual, more pensive, where the strength of their larger-than-life performances is their restraint.  De Niro and Pesci deliver quintessential performances, where it’s especially rewarding to see them working so in synch with each other, yet de Niro and Pacino are equally as nuanced, where these are developed relationships that come from spending years together, where this kind of mutual trust captured onscreen is simply exquisite to behold.  Steve Zaillian adapted a screenplay from the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, a book written by Charles Brandt, a former homicide prosecutor, investigator, and defense attorney who chronicles the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a WWII vet who rose from the ranks of a truck driver to a mob hitman, eventually working as a bodyguard for Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa.  While Sheeran confesses to working for the Bufalino family, committing hits on mobster Joe Gallo and Jimmy Hoffa, who mysteriously disappeared in 1975 and his body has never been found, it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries, with several sources thoroughly discrediting the so-called confession by the Irishman, including Bill Tonelli’s article The Lies of the Irishman from Slate, August 7, 2019, with Brandt and his publisher standing by their claims a week later, Publisher of I Heard You Paint Houses responds. - Slate ..., refuted again by a Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith in his essay "Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman: A True Crime Story?" from The New York Review of Books, September 26, 2019.  The film speaks for itself, as it’s a movie, not historical nonfiction, shot primarily on 35mm, and at three and a half hours it’s the longest mainstream film released in the past twenty years.   Of unique interest, new digital technology introduced by special effects supervisor Pablo Helman from Industrial Light & Magic actually de-ages the actors digitally, making them appear 30 years younger, actually expanding the range of the actors, which comes as a surprise, feeling a bit disorienting.  This is ironic, especially considering one of De Niro’s greatest roles was playing a younger version of an aging Marlon Brando in GODFATHER II (1974), which allowed him to win an Academy Award.  Had this technology existed back then he may never have been offered that role.    

Opening and closing in a Catholic-run nursing home, using that choreographed Steady Cam shot zooming down the hallways and peering into the various rooms before it finally sets upon De Niro in a wheelchair, aged considerably, as he joins into the existing narration, basically recounting his life story, recalling his various criminal activities over several decades, though despite his sincerity, he’s an unreliable narrator, as the character on which he’s based has a long history of making unsubstantiated claims, making this a Scorsese vehicle rather than revisionist history, which simply adds more flavor to this long and extensively detailed crime saga, all set to the 50’s doo-wop music of the Five Satins singing In the Still of the Night YouTube (3:00), which becomes the nostalgic musical motif of the film, always associated with De Niro as Frank Sheeran.  Rather than accentuate the ferocious energy of his earlier films, this film is more somber and reflective, where Frank is a quiet guy who keeps things to himself, leading a hermetic existence keeping in the background, revealing the price you pay living this life, filled with plenty of guilt and regrets afterwards, as you were never around when your kids were growing up, feeling distant and alienated, as if in another parallel universe from theirs, as your business is never mentioned or discussed at home, but it becomes pretty clear there’s a reason, as people you’re affiliated with end up dead, described on TV news reports as members of mob families, all coming to extremely violent ends.  There are inevitably whispers around the neighborhood, talk that your children are subjected to, but there is also clear and undisputed evidence when you witness your father stomp a local grocer in plain sight on the street one day after he reportedly shoved his precious daughter.  Hard not to remember the viciousness of that image from an early age.  Told completely in flashback mode, the story within the story is a road trip between Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Sheeran heading west on the interstate from Philadelphia, expected to turn north to Detroit for an associate’s wedding, with both their wives in the back seat.  Regularly stopping for smoke breaks (the women smoke like chimneys), as they’re not allowed to smoke in the car, this allows time to pass and Frank’s story to unfold, beginning as a trucker delivering meat in Pennsylvania, eventually making personal deliveries for well-connected mob figures, working his way up the ranks, eventually charged with theft, but when he refused to name names, certain people were impressed, where his entry level introduction to the syndicate included Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), the lawyer that got him off, and the lawyer’s cousin Russell (Joe Pesci), a Sicilian crime boss who has his hands on anything that makes money, where if you do business at all you do business with Russell Bufalino, with Pesci surprisingly restrained, under control, always thoughtful and deliberate, who takes a liking to Frank, surprised that an Irishman speaks Italian, but he learned it serving in Italy on the front lines during the war, frequenting Russell’s home town in Sicily, which seals the deal, giving him a few hit jobs, but he’s also an explosives expert from his army training, so he’s above and beyond his normal pay grade.  For that reason, Russell introduces him to Jimmy Hoffa.  “I heard you paint houses” are the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Sheeran by phone, who immediately responds “I also do my own carpentry work,” referring to both the hit and the clean-up.

What people forget today is the immense popularity of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the Teamsters Union, with Frank claiming “In the ’50’s, he was like Elvis… In the ’60’s he was bigger than the Beatles,” as powerful as anyone in the country with the exception of the President, as the union represented truck drivers, transporting goods, doing business in every state, and in those days everything was delivered by a truck, as they were the wheels generating the business.  The mob had a particular interest in the Teamsters as they laundered their dirty money through them, clearing the way for a more profitable business relationship.  The flamboyant Hoffa was a bit of a rabble-rouser, but it irked the mob when he gave a million dollar donation to Nixon in his race against Kennedy in 1960, as Kennedy was the mob candidate, based on their connection to his father, Joseph Kennedy, making his family fortune as a bootlegger back in the Prohibition Days of the Great Depression.  The mob was under the impression the Kennedys would return the casinos and night clubs in Havana back into their hands, but the Bay of Pigs disaster (Frank delivered the guns) upended that dream.  Nonetheless, Hoffa hated the Kennedys and their elite Ivy League privilege, which always turns against the working man.  When Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General, he led a one-man crusade against Jimmy Hoffa, claiming rampant fraud and corruption, continually hauled in front of Congressional investigation panels.  When Kennedy was shot, Hoffa was overjoyed, knowing the pressure would be off his back, and it was, but one remaining trial convicted him of bribery and jury tampering in 1964, sentenced to thirteen years in prison, three years spent in appeals, eventually serving his sentence in 1967.  Less than five years into his sentence, Nixon gave him a Presidential pardon, commuting his sentence to time served.  Displaying an obsessional drive, with occasional manic temper flare-ups, displaying a showboat mentality, narcissistically wanting all of the attention, Hoffa could think of nothing else but retaining his power as President of the Teamsters, but the mob was already getting whatever they wanted from the current leadership, basically their chosen puppet, believing Hoffa would thwart this free access, warning him on several occasions, but his open hatred for Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham), whose votes he needed, only opened a greater riff, where he became viewed as a loose cannon, an out-of-control liability, dangerously upsetting their plans, disappearing without a trace in 1975, never to be seen again, with Frank at the center of it all, perhaps embellished, who knows, though Tony Pro was there on the day he disappeared as well and went to the grave without uttering a word.  Many went to prison afterwards on matters not related to Hoffa as the Feds tried to remove the influence of the mob on the Teamsters Union. 

Told out of order, freely moving backwards and forwards, the rhythm of the story remains fluid throughout, only slowing down near the end as the men age and spend their time feebly in prison, basically shells of their former selves, but age catches up to everyone, where it’s no accident that a movie marquee is seen playing THE SHOOTIST (1976), marking John Wayne’s last hurrah, the end of an era, where the latter part of this film mostly looks back, becoming a contemplative lament.  The depiction of these men is not the youthful hot-tempered live wires just itching for a fight in Mean Streets (1973) when Scorsese was age 30, or the coked-up hotheads of Goodfellas when the director was 48, instead now when the director is 76-years old they are middle-aged family men who stay at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Home, sitting next to each other in their pajamas at night, just like the rest of typical middle class families on the road, or go bowling with their wives, doing nothing to draw attention, as they completely blend into the conventional mainstream, becoming a less romanticized end-of-the-road final chapter, where underwoven into this American narrative are significant historical events, like the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, where the mafia corruption creeps into the political mainstream.  Among the more vibrantly filmed sequences are the restaurant or nightclub scenes, or a testimonial dinner for Frank, with Hoffa introducing him, with all the legendary figures present, perfectly recreated and dimly lit, with the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto creating a recognizable haven for underworld figures that was the staple of Goodfellas, often associated with perfectly chosen music, like FATS DOMINO: "The fat man", 1949 - YouTube (2:43) or El Negro Zumbon (Anna) - Silvana Mangano - NO ... - YouTube (2:27).  Colorful mob figures are sprinkled throughout, becoming a who’s who of organized crime, where one of the more amusing techniques is utilizing freeze frame shots identifying particular mobsters, including their nicknames, indicating the date and manner of their subsequent murders.  There’s also an interesting twist in the use of Frank’s daughter Peggy, Anna Paquin as an adult and Lucy Gallina as a child, who witnesses first hand her father’s assault techniques when he straightens out a local grocer who steps out of line, growing wary right there and then of just exactly what he does for a living, expressed almost completely by long, accusatory stares.  She has only a single line of dialogue in the entire picture, yet she’s one of the most effective characters, standing for the moral conscience he doesn’t have, silently bearing witness.  It’s no accident that Hoffa becomes particularly attached to her, like her long lost uncle, buying her ice cream at an early age, dancing with her at parties, where they were obviously close, yet she never spoke to her father ever again from the day Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, causing Frank considerable grief in his old age and probably the source of his biggest regret.  This is what sticks at the end of the picture, as Frank has no regrets about what he did for a living, seen in various chats with a young priest that is probably the closest he ever comes to confession, but this emotional divide with his daughter where she simply doesn’t trust or value him as a human being is a new wrinkle, a point of consternation that his earlier gangster films never had, adding poignancy to his final days, which must feel restless, plagued by unfinished business, yet he’s powerless to do anything about it for perhaps the only time in his life.  He understood the patriarchal order of things, the pecking order of the mob, the men who commanded respect, and paid his dues diligently, as that was the order of things, but he failed miserably as a family man, routinely neglecting his own children, remaining distant and aloof, and by the time he figured it out it was too late as the damage was already done.  Since the life expectancy for most mob figures comes to a sudden and premature end, there’s little thought about regrets, but that is the central theme of this picture, one that haunts viewers with an unexpected urgency, with a mournful and melancholic-tinged Robbie Robertson composition playing over the end credits adding a touch of finality.     

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