Martin Scorcese never disappoints, as while his films aren’t always masterpieces (I’m looking at you, “Hugo” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”), they always entertain and are memorable.
Netflix has been on a hot streak in the past year, as it has greenlit risky but rewarding projects like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Eddie Murphy’s “Dolemite Is My Name” that is giving the streaming platform a library of original programming second to none. And with “The Irishman”, they now add a Scorcese film to it.
“The Irishman” highlights how great Netflix’s hands-off approach to producing films can be when the right talent is hired. Scorcese has decades of experience producing top-notch cinema under the Hollywood system, and it’s clear that he hasn’t always been able to tell stories exactly the way he’d like to under those limitations. Enter “The Irishman,” which is a massive 3 hour and 30 minute long film of pure, unadulterated Scorcese magic.
The film follows WWII vet turn mobster Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who forms a relationship with mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) after his cousin, Bill (Ray Romano) helps bail him out when he is accused of stealing meat from his employer, which he sold to the mafia.
Bufalino gives Sheeran odd jobs, but when he proves he has an affinity for killing, he quickly becomes a valuable hitman for his crime family. Eventually, he is assigned to become the bodyguard of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who has ties to the mob, and he forms a genuine friendship with him, arguably one that is more fruitful than his relationship with Russell.
Hoffa’s involvement with the mob quickly becomes his undoing, as he faces mounting pressure from the federal government led by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston), who seek to prosecute him for mismanaging the Teamster’s pension funds as well as corruption, and like everyone in this movie, they get him, but not for the worst of his crimes (he was convicted of jury tampering). Hoffa then goes to prison for a few years, in which his vice president, Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) takes over, who is much more incompetent as a leader than Hoffa, but is much more loose with the Teamster’s money, which is good for the mafia.
As such, Hoffa is abandoned by the mob, who expect him to stand down and get out of their way, despite having worked faithfully with them for years. Throughout the film, the mob is portrayed as an evil organization who will expect you to give up everything for them, but will only repay you with superficial favors and wealth in return. Pesci and De Niro portray men who essentially sold their souls for fleeting prosperity laced with times full of violence, dread and regret, alienating or killing everyone who came close to them, and none of it is worth it, as all of Bufalino and Sheeran’s associates either end up murdered, or in prison.
The film poses an important question: Who lived the better life, Hoffa, Bufalino, or Sheeran? Hoffa was deeply flawed as an individual, but he loved his union, inspired others, was universally loved by all in his heyday, and died standing for what he believed in.
Bufalino is portrayed as a sociopath who cares little for anyone but himself, and as such, ends up dying alone with people who don’t like him, but feel like they are forced to be with him and do his bidding. He lives a life without joy, filled with unforgivable, senseless violence, and in the end he is left with nothing, dying in prison.
Sheeran is a tragic anti-hero, at first joining the mob to get ahead, but he quickly falls into a routine of taking orders and asking no questions, and ends up not standing for anything. He never grows beyond his WWII days, and he pays for it as he is led down a dark path by an unreliable and selfish commander in Bufalino. He goes to prison for him, he ruins his relationship with his daughters and his family for him, and he kills his best friend in Hoffa for him, all because he convinced himself that throughout his life, he has no choice in the way things are, and allows himself to be complacent.
We see Sheeran through multiple eras in his life, as he tells the story on his deathbed at a nursing home, wanting to make things right, but realizes that it’s too late. He does what he can to make peace with God and atone for his sins, but what he does is never enough. Nothing can be.
The tragedy of Sheeran is that he had multiple chances to change things for the better or walk away, but he squandered all of them, as he allowed Bufalino to brainwash him, a man who gave him his start, but asked for everything from him in return. He finds a better mentor and friend in Hoffa, and never once questions Russell, despite the fact that he, at any moment, could have turned on him and he was in a position of power to potentially take over the mob, thanks to his seniority in the organization as well as the connections to the Teamsters Hoffa provided (he was even a chapter president at one point).
Once Sheeran was entrenched in the Teamsters and is essentially Hoffa’s right hand man, he doesn’t need Russell anymore. In fact, it’s arguable that he becomes a cancerous branch that he should have cut off, as the U.S. government would later crack down on the mob and send them all to prison. By being complacent, Sheeran loses everything he has ever loved by being on the wrong side of history, and it is interesting to theorize what would have happened had he stuck with Hoffa and fought the mob, who were beginning to see their way out. Perhaps Hoffa would have regained his presidency of the Teamsters and would have been able to provide strong leadership against President Ronald Reagan’s union-busting in the 80s. Perhaps Sheeran would have been able to salvage his humanity.
“The Irishman” serves as an important closing chapter on Scorsese’s notable library of gangster movies, deconstructing the conventions of such movies popularized by “The Godfather” and later expanded upon by Scorsese. This is not a film that glamorizes gangsters. While it might be easy to get caught up in the energy and action of a film like “Casino” or “Goodfellas”, “The Irishman” never portrays its leads as people who should be idolized. With the exception of parts of Hoffa’s life, they all led miserable, bitter existences, and they paid dearly for their crimes.
“The Irishman” makes two strong statements: Don’t waste your life and live a life worth living. Don’t be like Sheeran, who withers away in a nursing home, shunned by his family, whose friends are all dead (some by his own hand), never having accomplished anything good or ever having stood for something worth standing for.
At the end of the film, everyone is gone, they’re fights irrelevant and lost to time. The only thing that really remains is the good Hoffa fought for, as his fights continue to this day, and his legacy is implied to have endured, even if the man himself has been forgotten.
“The Irishman” gets a 9.5/10