Published Nov 27, 2019The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's new gangster ensemble saga, has already been making headlines, not just for its three-and-half hour runtime and use of a new, mostly-not-distracting de-ageing technology, but also a debate about its theatrical release from Netflix. But these are asides to a film that will be remembered as a reflection on growing older that reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (who came out of unofficial retirement for the film) for the first time in 24 years, and is also the filmmaker's first collaboration with Al Pacino (and it's fucking glorious).
Adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian (who previously worked with Scorsese on Gangs of New York) from Charles Brandt's memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, we meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro) in a nursing home as he addresses the viewer, first in voiceover and then directly, before flashing back to 1949, working his way to 2000 throughout the film.
After a year-and-a-half of service in World War II, Sheeran supports his family in Pennsylvania by transporting meat in a truck, until he has a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a crime boss who takes a liking to Sheeran and his knack for Italian, which he picked up during the war. Whether because of his direct experiences with combat or the influence of the war to reject his prior life, Sheeran's loyalty to Bufalino never wavers from this point forward.
He is welcomed and rewarded for his ability to follow directions and wage cold violence unquestioningly — something one of his daughters Peggy (younger, played by Lucy Gallina; older, played by Anna Paquin) is a quiet witness to. Despite very few lines of dialogue and one of the few women in the film, her presence is an enduring and silent judge of moral character that hangs over her father and his relationship with Bufalino, whom she never liked, throughout. Someone she does take a liking to is Jimmy Hoffa (played with such relish by Pacino, he practically jumps out of the screen), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with whom Sheeran becomes close after Bufalino sends him in to help Hoffa strong-arm any rivals.
Like a war machine put to use in a different battle zone, Sheeran is obedient to Hoffa ("I thought I was talking to General Patton") and as they grow closer, so does Sheeran's rank to President of Local 326, where his adaptability is on full display mimicking tactics he learned from his lawyer (Ray Romano). Sheeran's discomfort only surfaces when he is caught in between his allegiance to Bufalino and Hoffa, trying to please both sides.
Archival photos and clips contextualize these characters within an actual historical timeline, and insinuate the consequences of their activities on politically significant moments (and vice-versa) such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, and John F. Kennedy's election and assassination. Enthusiasts of 1960s America, in particular, will appreciate the time taken to show even the bit players' small stories interlaced with such historic realities.
But before you reach for your tinfoil hat, Scorsese warned at a press conference following the screening that, although you could interpret these things as you wish, they are not there to be a definitive telling of events. His interest lies in depicting human beings who, in the life they're in, will "do everything to keep the power" and whose different needs are a driving force of all action.
A peppering of authentic historical details (Lum's hot dogs) and relevant locations (117 in 108 days of principal photography) colour the surroundings of characters who are each guided by specific tics — do not wear shorts to a meeting with Hoffa — with a cast that also boasts Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale. As with many of his previous films, Scorsese fills spaces of tension with humorous dialogues that almost act as a test of who in the audience would have the survival reflexes in a similar situation when inevitable violence erupts.
But the heart of the film is carried by De Niro, particularly in its denouement that finds Sheeran reflecting, alone and at the end of his life. Whether stubborn or dutiful, the motivations behind his character's reliability are heartbreaking, the complexities of his choices highlighted by De Niro's subtlety of movement and expression. A sort of fairytale, repentance and the pursuit of virtue and forgiveness are central to The Irishman, themes editor and long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker has tackled before and delves further into than on any previous work. What's not to like?