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The Irishman – Review

December 7, 2019

Having married a Detroit gal, and by making many trips to Motor City over the years, I’ve heard my fair share of stories about what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Most of them have carried about as much weight as a ticket stub to a Detroit Tigers game and can be discarded with the same contemptuous shrug.

On the surface, Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic The Irishman is just giving the same old hokey promise — to solve the mystery of what happened to James Riddle Hoffa after he stepped outside of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. But when it comes to iconic gangster films, few do them better than Scorsese. His best Mob films have portrayed organised crime through the character of the city in which they are set. Goodfellas is a classic New York film and Casino tells the story of Las Vegas better than the Book of Genesis tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both Goodfellas and Casino were reasonably accurate depictions of historical events. The Departed took the case of Whitey Bulger as a more allusive inspiration for its Boston setting, but it was just as gripping. The Irishman is Scorsese’s most ambitious gangster film to date. It’s cast of characters include hoodlums from New York to California, and while the story climaxes with the unsolved murder of Hoffa (one of Detroit’s most enduring mysteries) the narrative includes the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy assassination and even Watergate. It’s a long road through the darker chapters of recent American history and appropriately enough the story begins with a lengthy car journey to a wedding.

Irishman

Some of the lighter moments in The Irishman come from Russell Bufalino’s failed attempts to impress Frank Sheeran’s daughter

The year is 1975. Hit-man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is tasked with driving Mob Boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) from his home in Pittston, Pennsylvania to a family wedding in Detroit. Both of their wives accompany them and to the outside observer the four travellers might seem like two typically bickering aging couples. But there is a history of dark secrets between these four people. Bufalino’s wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) chides him for not letting her smoke in the car, but she is more than happy to wash the blood out of his shirt after he has participated in a Mafia hit. Before they reach the wedding, another notorious murder will take place. Jimmy Hoffa will vanish in Detroit after turning on the Mob Bosses who years earlier had brought him to power. Sheeran, the film’s narrator, is involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, and his life-story involves many murders. From executing German prisoners during the war to taking on murder contracts in later life, Sheeran possesses both ambition and icy ruthlessness. Yet, he is at heart a family man, and his most painful moments come when he abandons his first wife and his daughter stops speaking to him.

Despite not being Italian (but being fluent in the language), Sheeran soon moves up the ranks of organised crime, befriending Jimmy Hoffa (played by a flamboyant Al Pacino) and landing a high-ranking role in the Teamsters Union. Sheeran is either involved in or talks the audience through some of the most infamous murders in Mafia history – Albert Anastasia, Joe Colombo, ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo etc. When a real-life character first appears onscreen, their eventual fate, usually either ‘murdered’ or ‘died in prison’, appears in captions alongside them. One senses Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing never really left him. No matter how much wealth and power these men acquire, they are all damned in the end. There is one glaring error though in signposting revelations about these historical figures. The Irishman claims Allen Dorfman was murdered in 1979. He met his violent end, in fact, in 1983. This seems like an odd error to make, especially as Dorfman’s murder was dramatised in Casino. At times it does feel like the history is awkwardly stitched together, but what elevates the material is a handful of extraordinary performances. The aforementioned Kathrine Narducci is brilliant as the Lady Macbeth of Mob Wives, and Joe Pesci has never been better as the pensive, empathetic but still ruthless Mafia Don Bufalino. The soundtrack reflects the environment of these characters. Bufalino is a gangster reigning over rural Pennsylvania and the bluesy, harmonica drenched ‘Theme for the Irishman‘ perfectly captures this milieu. The de-aging technology used on the actors is fairly impressive, and certainly no worse than the average Hollywood facelift. The only time I felt nonplussed was a scene where De Niro is beating up a guy who is clearly thirty/forty years younger than him. Even though they’ve de-aged his face, De Niro’s body moves like that of a seventy year old.

The viewer might be inclined to ask, how convincing is The Irishman as history? Short answer, not very. At times the film riffs on, by now debunked, conspiracy theory films such as JFK as it features a split-second appearance of David Ferrie. Also how it presents Hoffa’s murder is nowhere near as convincing as theories put forward in Scott Burnstein’s excellent documentary Detroit Mob Confidential. But this does not stop the film from being dramatically satisfying, quite the opposite. James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, often considered his best novel, features a Hoffa who personally murders an informant with a machete. Few historians would argue that Hoffa would have ever got his hands dirty like this, but it matters little in a fictional portrayal of a very bloody era. Frank Sheeran’s lies have been exposed before, and The Irishman does not always convince as history. It does, however, provide a thrilling, darkly comic and welcome addition to the pantheon great gangster movies.

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