This should come as a surprise to no one (except maybe the most Galaxy Brained Marvel Fans), but Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker. He has earned this title. He explores grief, faith, failure, evil, greed, and corruption in the same way Steinbeck wrote about them and Springsteen sang about them. Scorsese’s newest film, The Irishman, is not a masterpiece. It is, however, the sign of a master filmmaker. It is a powerhouse American epic, bolstered by impressive filmmaking and pitch-perfect supporting performances, that use one man’s story of personal failure and corruption to depict a country and a generation’s shortcomings over a 50-year period. And it is awe-inspiring to witness.
The Irishman follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro) over a half-century of his life as he reflects in the nursing home. Returning home from World War II, Sheeran becomes a Teamster, and soon finds himself in the company of famous mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Having found a father figure he’d always desired, Frank soon becomes Russell’s go-to muscle, performing hits and cementing a lifelong friendship. Soon Russell asks Frank to serve as the bodyguard for Mafia ally and hero to the working class Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who is engaged in a war with Big Business, Robert Kennedy, and rising Teamster Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Frank and Jimmy instantly strike a kinship that runs thicker than blood. But as Frank’s stock begins to rise, and Russell and Jimmy begin to find themselves at odds, Frank soon finds himself having to make a choice…a choice that will forever decide the fate of his soul.
The Irishman is, in every sense of the word, an epic. And like most epics, it uses its scope to comment on long-running themes throughout history. At its core, The Irishman is Scorsese’s attempt to reckon with a half-century’s worth of crimes, failures, and shortcomings, both on an individual and national level. Every action from our protagonists can be tied to one of the “pillars of American society.” Frank’s morality and knack for killing are taught to him in the U.S. Army, which manifests in philosophies (“In war you pray and worry until the fighting starts. Once that happens, you just try and survive”) and Mob interactions (“Leave that place like you left Berlin”). Meanwhile, like most gangster films, Frank’s drive comes from a desire to support his family (allegedly). As he so eloquently notes in the film, “More kids means you gotta earn more money.” It’s a commentary on the ironic slope between what you do for you family and how you lose them along the way. It’s incredibly telling that despite all his talk about “supporting his family and providing for his kids,” we only get brief glimpses in the film’s 209-minute runtime of his family life. Perhaps this is just poor storytelling, but I interpret it as an intentional statement about Frank’s lack of consideration to his flesh and blood in favor of cavorting with his friends. It makes his later apologies ring hollow in a way I can only assume Scorsese intended from the jump. And as is the case with most Scorsese films, faith plays an important role, as Scorsese uses baptisms and confessions as means of justification for our main characters. While priests aware of Frank’s choices may look on in horror, Frank, Russell, and Jimmy all use religion as a defense of their criminal actions. As they are working for their country, their faith, their people, and their family, obviously it is morally righteous to bribe, beat, and murder those who get in the way of their noble intentions.
Hell, even business is called out for their role in corrupting our country – whenever Frank is required to bomb some trucks or a building, he opens up a big case of dynamite clearly labeled DuPont, America’s greatest chemical company known predominantly for the criminal actions of John DuPont and their role in polluting our environment. While they can’t be held responsible for Frank’s bombings, their actions are just as reprehensible as those onscreen. But if you need concrete proof that Scorsese is juxtaposing the crimes of the individual against the crimes of the country, look no further than his paralleling of national stories with Frank’s quiet, crime-filled life. While Frank is brutalizing and killing, we see the corrupt, sadistic war between an uncaring Big Business and a Mob-filled Union. We watch as John F. Kennedy is killed just as he cracks down on the Mafia, five men are arrested at Watergate, and thousands of young men are sent off to Vietnam to die. The two stories even intersect on occasion, with Frank participating in the rigging of the Chicago election, funding the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Jimmy’s constant briberies of his good friend Richard Nixon. The Irishman pulls no punches in its message: Frank’s crimes are America’s crimes, and a sign of the downfall of America’s morality.
However, while a nation may be responsible for years and years of crimes, it cannot be held responsible without the participation of its citizens. It is for this reason that Scorsese dives deeper into the story and the thematic material to condemn an entire generation, and to apologize for the behavior and actions that they brought forth upon our society. The film’s overarching leitmotif is The Five Satins’ “In The Still of the Night,” a song laced with nostalgia that features a repeated chorus of “I remember.” Not only does this comment on the film’s unreliable flashback structure, but it touches on the theme of the film: a generation looking back fondly on a time before their actions had consequences. The film is filled with a sense of nostalgia prevalent amongst older generations, filled with diners, meals at Howard Johnson’s, and three-day car trips from Philadelphia to Detroit. However, Scorsese lines this with an irony, as the film is not a Forrest Gump-esque ode to the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers – instead, it is a moral reckoning with the question “What is a legacy?” Obviously this refers to the murder, betrayal, and corruption that seems intertwined with their behavior, but the film also takes time to touch on subtler, quieter moments. It’s funny to see Frank act out to “protect” his daughters by beating up men who insult them, but the film also takes the time to comment on what this nostalgic “when men were men” behavior will lead to.
The constant presence of Frank’s toxic masculinity, which he sees as normal and protective, traumatizes his daughters, and even the ones that don’t loathe him by the end are still terrified. There’s an undercurrent of racism that runs through our protagonists’ cores. And all of this is silently watched by the children of the film, who see their crimes and internalize them. Scorsese underlines this message with his aging friends, forcing us to reconcile with the passing of time. It’s why we see Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro in their aged glory. When we see them near the end, aged beyond recognition and without the aid of makeup or CGI, it is a sobering moment. By the time “In The Still of the Night” is reprised almost three hours after its first appearance, it comes at an ironic, painful moment that will haunt the viewer to their core. It becomes clear as the film goes on that De Niro’s voiceover is delivered to no one in particular, and the message is clear: his actions have cost him everything, and when his time comes, he will be alone. Whether or not they were gangsters, ordinary citizens, or politicians, there are a generation’s worth of crimes that need answering for, and The Irishman aims to offer the apology.
And yet, despite these external, macro themes of national and generational sin, The Irishman also sets out to comment on the human aspect of failure, and what happens when we lose our personal moral compass. While the men of The Irishman try to practice the stoicism integral to the masculinity of 20th century masculinity, the film subtly shows their behaviors manipulated by their emotions. Frank’s decisions are driven by a desire for a father figure, thus his fixation on Jimmy and Russell. Meanwhile, despite Russell’s stately demeanor, the film subtly comments on his ability to give in to his own worst impulses – there’s an implication that the film’s eventual climax comes from his jealousy of Peggy’s fondness for Jimmy and his own rejection. And perhaps most interesting of all, there’s Jimmy Hoffa, in all his complicated legacy. From the jump, The Irishman desires to set the record straight on Hoffa’s legacy, commenting that “Today, people only know that he disappeared. Back then, everybody in the country knew who he was.” Perhaps the most interesting through line of the film is the attempt to decipher Hoffa’s driving force. While we know he is devoted to the Teamsters’ Union, we can never figure out why exactly it is so important to him, when he has the opportunity to retire on top of the world. Is he consumed by power? Is it his pride? Or is he legitimately convinced he’s making the world a better place, in spite of his Mob connections? One of my favorite moments comes when Frank and Jimmy stop an argument for Frank to ask Jimmy about presenting him with an award. There’s a warmth to Pacino’s Hoffa that can’t be ignored, and makes him a fascinating character.
Unfortunately, the same level of complexity is not found in Frank Sheeran, who emerges from the film as a two-dimensional enigma. There are moments of depth to Frank that are worth exploring, including his use of a position as President of Union 326 to pass along the wisdom he’s been granted over the years. But these moments are fleeting inside the film’s sprawling runtime. In fact, while there are several references to Frank’s union work, we never actually see him working for the community (odd to imagine anything from this film being cut). What’s worse, we aren’t granted much insight into Frank’s inner desires – there’s nothing that drives him to crime, nothing that predisposes him to murder, and no sense of action at all. He is passive in his own story, committing crimes simply because the story tells him to, and it makes for a frustrating characterization. Still, things are bound to be lost in this sprawling of a story, and I am willing to forgive the film this misstep in favor of its stronger-developed themes.
Perhaps the greatest miracle The Irishman has to offer is the sheer fact that a film of this caliber and this magnitude was crafted by a near-80-year old. Scorsese makes it clear from the jump that he is a master of staging a scene, be it a Five Satins-set tracking shot through a nursing home to a truly remarkable sequence detailing the mindset and minutia of performing an assassination (i.e. choosing a gun, how to scare crowds, when to pee, how to get away, etc.). While many aging directors fall into habits and remain stagnant through their later careers, Scorsese continues to add new, intriguing touches, including written updates on how every character Frank encounters will die – usually horribly. Are these updates meant to imply Frank killed them? A message that everyone dies, one way or another? All we know for sure is that these title raises these questions, and that already makes the choice a success. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Prieto is still a master cinematographer, filming everything with relative aplomb, from gorgeous wide shots of New York (including bridges and the Twin Towers) to an intimate sequence of Frank forlornly looking at the ceiling, illuminated by a static TV as he reflects on his choices.
Of course, the film’s greatest asset is its editing, which sees longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker doing the Lord’s work. Unlike the short-but-sweet Mean Streets or the long-yet-breezy Goodfellas, Schoonmaker’s pace here is almost ironically slow and honest, and yet it never feels its length. Layered with flashbacks inside of flashbacks inside of flashbacks, and filled with sharp, succinct cuts between long takes (including quick cuts between Hoffa’s trial and his meetings over which jurors are “approachable”), she makes three hours of filmmaking fly by before you know it. It’s truly astonishing how brisk she makes 209 minutes feel, and I’m so impressed with her work here that I’m even willing to forgive how poorly cut an important phone call is late in the film’s runtime. Of course, there is one question I’m sure you all want me to answer: is the de-aging as bad as we’ve been led to believe. Well, the answers a bit complicated. Seeing these actors rendered to versions of their younger selves (as opposed to Marvel’s recreations of classic actors’ youths) is certainly not perfect, but it is surprisingly not as distracting as it could be. It lives in a world of not-quite-right, yet never veers into the Uncanny Valley. In fact, the only time things stand out as Not Working come when De Niro attempts to act like a younger man – no matter how hard he tries to change his movements, De Niro still looks 80, and it makes his attempts to throw things and beat up thugs look laughably bad. Still, for a film to take this big a swing and come away with “not bad,” it is rather something of a miracle.
In terms of the performances, The Irishman is the type of film that surrounds a fine central performance with astonishingly sublime work. Robert De Niro has the hardest role in the film, as his character is mostly silent and instructive. He’s an observer more than a reactor, and it makes for a less-flashy, more introverted performance. But while this is far from his showiest, most impressive work, there are still moments of greatness that reflect De Niro’s legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. The aforementioned phone call sequence is shocking in its sickening, heartbreaking squeamishness. And the final thirty minutes are some of the most sobering, haunting work of the actor’s career. He makes the most of an unforgiving, unrelenting role. But if I’m walking away from this film thinking about performances, I’m thinking about the astounding supporting cast De Niro finds himself surrounded with. In particular, I am in love with Pacino’s work as Jimmy Hoffa. It’s been a long time since Pacino truly rocked the world with one of his performances – perhaps 2003’s Angels in America. Here, he is electrifying in the performance, milking each scene with an emotional weight and shouty verbosity. Pacino plays the role like America’s grandfather – mispronouncing names for a laugh (his wording of “Booby Kennedy” is hysterical), addicted to ice cream sundaes, bigoted, bombastic, lovable, hateable, and endlessly watchable. It is classic Pacino, and I am grateful I lived to see one more performance out of the master like this. Meanwhile, Joe Pesci wows with his surprising casting against type. It’s been ten years since Pesci’s retirement, and seeing him at this age is pretty haunting. And yet, the legend hasn’t lost a step in his age or seclusion – playing a cross between Goodfellas’ Paulie and Brando’s Vito Corleone, Pesci plays the role like a caring father figure. He’s far calmer than his Tommy DeVito, yet no less menacing. He looks out for his community, offers up compassion and understanding, yet isn’t afraid to grow stern and make the tough, vicious decisions when he needs to. It is hard to surpass Tommy DeVito, but Russell Bufalino offers up a valiant effort.
The rest of the cast is a venerable who’s who of gangster character actors and living legends. Bobby Cannavale shows up to play A Bobby Cannavale Type, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And this time he gets to do it in a bathrobe! Meanwhile, the film is damn near stolen from three aging legends by comedian Ray Romano, who has been on a roll as of late playing awkward, schlubby characters inside of well-crafted dramas. It is his performance as lawyer Bill Bufalino that sticks with me days after seeing the film, and I almost want a spinoff focused on his mob-adjacent lawyer who is both great at his job and a completely nebbish dork. Harvey Keitel doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Angelo Bruno, but he knows how to carry himself onscreen, and he adds a gravitas to the role that is desperately needed. Anna Paquin is vital to the role of Peggy Sheeran, even though she doesn’t have much to say or do, but I want to give a special shout out to the actress who played Young Peggy, Lucy Gallina, who has the greatest side eye in the business. Actors like Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, and Jake Hoffman all show up as traditional mobsters and union bosses to great effect. And in perhaps the funniest, greatest casting of all, comedian Jim Norton is given a chance to pay homage to his inspiration, Don Rickles. I mean, from top to bottom this is one of the best ensembles of the year.
As cliché as it may be, The Irishman is simply the type of film they don’t make anymore. And I understand the reason why: it is a big, sweeping epic condemning almost a century of American history with the type of wisdom only a true genius can provide. Even if the final product is perfect, it is far too big a gamble to justify. And yet, you can’t help but feel wonder and awe when watching this film. It is the type of work you just don’t see very often anymore; the type of film that swings for the fences from the get-go. It’s like watching Babe Ruth trying to play baseball in the modern league – there’s no telling how well he’d play against these younger, modern players, and yet you still feel like you’re watching someone do something out of this world. Despite its flaws (or perhaps because of them), The Irishman is, quite simply, cinema at its finest.