What a week for five-star movies, this following hot on the heels of I’m sorry I missed you! I only realised after I had bought the tickets that The Irishman is three and a half hours long and began to wonder how Scorsese could sustain our interest for so long. I need not have worried.
The Irishman is the confession of mafia henchman and fixer Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro), the eponymous non-Italian in Pennsylvania’s mob. He learnt his trade – and his fluent Italian – during the second world war when he was tasked with mopping up by disappearing prisoners into their own self-dug graves.
We meet him early on as he delivers beef carcasses around the state; a breakdown and a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) comes in handy when he is accused (correctly) of scamming his employers. Bufalino’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano) is a hot-shot lawyer and manages to get Sheeran off. Soon his amorality and criminal record are recognised as being useful to the mob and he is rubbing shoulders and ‘cleaning’ for the big guys like Angelo Bruno, a sinister-looking Harvey Keitel. All Bufalino, now a father figure to Sheeran, has to say is a nuanced, ‘he needs to show respect’ or ‘we need to straighten this out’ and Sheeran sets about his business.
It is Bufalino who introduces Sheeran to the opportunity to ‘be a part of history’. Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) runs the Teamsters Union, is hand-in-glove with the Mafia and needs a minder. ‘I heard you paint houses?’ he says to Sheeran – code for hits, referencing painting over the bloodstained walls – to which he replies ‘Yeah and I do carpentry too’ – as in cleans up the mess. Soon he and Hoffa are inseparable and Sheeran himself rises up the ranks of the union, becoming a boss in his own right.
Hoffa was to disappear mysteriously in 1975, following a spell in prison as a result of ‘Booby’ Kennedy’s obsession with cleaning up the Teamsters. This part of American history is fascinating – the link of the mob to Joe Kennedy and the election promises, including getting Cuba back, made to them by JFK in return for its support, and his subsequent murder all raise questions. Sheeran was rumoured to have confessed on his deathbed to playing a part in the Hoffa mystery…
This is not just another Scorsese gangster move, a follow-up to Goodfellas. Its length, rather than detracting, enables him to weave a story of a man, an era, a political history. The skill of the master craftsman is in letting it unfold gently, with flashbacks to the wheelchair-bound Sheeran telling his story, finally and factually, yet with a self-deprecating sense of regret and humility, recognising the wrongs he did, in particular to his family. He especially regrets the trauma he inflicted on his eldest daughter, Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin) by beating the local shop-keeper to a pulp for accidentally ‘shoving’ her.
So what makes this such a great movie? Firstly there is the triumvirate of central characters, de Niro, Pesci – brought out of retirement – and Pacino. Scorsese flip-flops them through time with remarkable digital aging technology to great success. While de Niro as Sheeran is almost monosyllabic and soft-spoken, and Pesci a wily old tortoise putting his head out for the critical moments of advice or command, Pacino’s Hoffa is a tour de force of huge personality and character, excitable, angry, violent and as thick-skinned as a rhinoceros even when the writing is on the wall for him. It’s an outstanding performance.
Secondly its sheer length and the moody recreation of gangster land and its accompanying violence give the film the feel of an Homerian epic, almost an elegy to a specific period in history, both fascinating and repugnant, but spellbinding nonetheless. It’s a perfect partnering of talents on all sides and well-worth the time invested – so sit back, have a glass of wine and revel in the masterclass.