There’s a scene toward the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman where Robert De Niro’s teamster-turned-mafia-hit-man Frank Sheeran, now a feeble old man in a nursing home, is looking at an old picture of his daughter with Jimmy Hoffa.
“Who’s that?” says an indulgent nurse. When he tells her it’s Hoffa, she claims to know who he is, but she’s clearly faking it.
There was a time, only a few decades earlier, when the Teamsters president was one of the most famous people alive, second perhaps only to the President of the United States. Now he’s just a dead old man in a fading picture.
The irony is resonant. If you’ve been following film news lately, you’ll know that Scorsese, the filmmaker whose bravado and machismo once made him a kind of rock star of auteurs, is in a bit of a feud with fans of Marvel films. Scorsese called those films amusement park rides—entertainments, but not works of art. In response, Marvel fans basically called him out of touch and irrelevant. They “Okay, Boomer”-ed him.
It happens to us all, Scorsese reminds us. We live, we fight for the things we believe in—some petty, some important—we rage against the dying of the light, but eventually we all end up as some dead guy in a fading photograph. One thing’s for sure, with The Irishman, Scorsese has resoundingly proven that he’s not dead yet.
The story focuses on De Niro’s Frank, who is essentially beholden to two father figures. There’s Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the sensible and competent mob boss who took a shining to young Frank when he was still just a truck driver and groomed him to be a hit man (or, in the film’s parlance, a “painter of houses”). And then there’s Al Pacino’s Hoffa, the colorful Teamsters president who also took Frank under his wing. In his own way, Frank loved both men—he particularly hero worshipped Hoffa—but he was hardly a sentimental man. A WWII vet, he was used to following orders and asking few questions. Frank himself was capable of extreme violence—especially if you crossed his family—but he was also a circumspect, solid, reliable man. That’s why both Bufalino and Hoffa liked having him as their deputy.
The problem occurs when Hoffa runs afoul of the mob and Frank has to attempt to negotiate both worlds. At some point, he knows he might have to choose.
Much has been said about The Irishman’s three and a half hour length. Is it indulgent? Bloated? Self important? For me, the film’s length seems just right. One thing about Scorsese: A lesser filmmaker might try to trim the alleged fat, take away the film’s detours and grace notes. But those grace notes—like a lively argument about just how late is insultingly late (Hoffa was notorious for not suffering tardiness) and an ongoing gag about a man self conscious about his big ears—are some of the best parts of the film. Scorsese knows how to wield humor, humanizing details, and digressions to keep the film lively.
Of course, it helps to have three of the greatest actors of our time anchoring the proceedings. Yes, having Pacino and De Niro play Irishmen is a bit of a stretch—they are, after all, the quintessential Italian American actors—but when you have a chance to cast Pacino and De Niro in your film you do it. De Niro’s Frank is a steady, cautious, quietly observant man—a survivor, who takes a transactional approach to all the unsavory thing he is asked to do. Pacino’s Hoffa is garrulous, vainglorious, eccentric—you can see how he so easily led men with his powerful charisma and how his own vanity led to his downfall. (In this case, Pacino’s notorious scenery chewing seems to perfectly serve the character.) As for Pesci, where ya been man? It’s wonderful that Scorsese was able to lure the fiercely private actor out of semi-retirement for this part. He’s playing a bit against type—Bufalino is not hot-headed nor ridiculous, but rather a wise and even compassionate leader (insofar as a man who routinely orders murders can be compassionate). Like Hoffa, he has his quirks—while Hoffa loves ice cream sundaes and, as mentioned, disdains lateness, Bufalino can’t stand to be around smokers so much that he has Frank pull over on a road trip every few minutes so their wives can light up.
While Frank tries to be Switzerland when it comes to the feud between his two mentors, another member of his family has picked sides. His daughter Peggy (played as a watchful child by Lucy Gallina and as a scornful adult by Anna Paquin) adores Hoffa and can’t stand Bufalino. She knows who he is, or has a general sense, and she particularly hates his influence over her father. Naturally, Bufalino goes out of his way to win her over, unsuccessfully, and his glowering hurt and anger over this is just another one of those perfect grace notes.
There’s another way that the film’s three and half hour runtime works in its favor. The film is ultimately about the passage of time—about powerful men who become old and irrelevant. Because he uses actors as familiar as Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci, we can’t help but to feel the pangs of our own mortality watching them. Wow, they look…old. And the film plays with the timeline—jumping from the distant past to the near past to the present. Yes, the film’s famous de-aging technique is pretty impressive—De Niro may not actually look like his young self, but he convincing looks like a young Frank—but I was equally impressed by the film’s aging makeup. Frank narrates the film from that nursing home and, with his thin hair, oversized glasses, and uselessly protruding belly under a velvet tracksuit, he looks exactly as I’d imagine an 80ish Frank would look.
There is something undeniably elegiac about The Irishman. Scorsese is clearly reflecting on his own career, his own legacy of making great films about not-so-great men. But unlike Hoffa (and Frank and Bufalino, who are both based on real people), Scorsese has put vital works of art into this world. Long after he’s gone—and, dare I say, long after most of those Marvel films are forgotten—he will still be remembered as one the greatest filmmakers of this, or any, time.
The Irishman opens Friday, November 15 at the Landmark Theatre Harbor East and streams on Netflix beginning November 27.