An elderly man named Frank Sheeran currently resides in a nursing home in the 2000s. Superficially, there wouldn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary about this man. However, this man has a storied history, beginning during the time he served in the Second World War. Being close to death, he reminisces about his exploits upon returning home. Nobody would suspect this elder, who doesn’t look that much different than the home’s other tenants, was actually a hitman responsible for countless high-profile murders throughout the twentieth century.
Sheeran’s trials and tribulations throughout the Second World War had him commit several heinous crimes. The film glosses over a majority of his indiscretions, but it does depict him ordering captured German soldiers to dig their own graves before fatally shooting them. Even before he would join the mafia, the world-spanning conflict gave him the perfect opportunity to shape himself into the ideal hitman. Once the war ended, he returned to Philadelphia, and by the 1950s, he became a delivery truck driver.
It doesn’t take him long before he returns to a life of crime. His truck breaks down at a gas station owned by one Russell Bufalino. He is, in truth, the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. Sheeran follows his newfound career path by regularly selling the contents of his shipments to a local gangster – one Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio. Immediately, he begins to reap the benefits of his new line of work when a union lawyer, Bill Bufalino, gets him an undeserved “not guilty” verdict. From there, Bill formally introduces Sheeran to his cousin Russell, thus allowing the veteran to begin doing jobs for the latter.
This development eventually leads Russell to introduce Sheeran to the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters: Jimmy Hoffa. One of the key points Sheeran makes in his narration is that later generations don’t understand how influential Hoffa was. If one were to ask someone who he was now, chances are you would get a blank stare as an answer. At best, they would think of him as that man who suddenly disappeared one day with no explanation.
It doesn’t even come close to explaining the sheer power he wielded in his heyday. He could do anything he wished; hell would fall upon anyone who got on his bad side. Sheeran notes the power he possessed was likely second only to the President of the United States. His ultimate fate also belies just how famous he was during the height of his power. It’s something the people who didn’t directly experience the extent of his influence could possibly know. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Sheeran describes his popularity as rivaling that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
Being such an infamous historical figure, Hoffa is given an interesting depiction in The Irishman. Sheeran’s memoirs describe himself conducting several hits for Hoffa. While his word is a dubious source, Hoffa isn’t shown directly ordering a hit at any point in this film. That being said, he does become interested in enlisting Sheeran’s services, delivering the immortal line “I heard you paint houses”. He is also shown to be extremely egotistical. When John F. Kennedy becomes President of the United States, he appoints his brother, Robert F. Kennedy as the Attorney General. The former is assassinated in 1963, and in a blatant show of disrespect, Hoffa orders his men to fly the flags of his building at full mast. This display of arrogance likely made Robert Kennedy even more determined to bring Hoffa down. Just one year later, Hoffa would get arrested and convicted for jury tampering.
At the same time, Hoffa isn’t shown to be completely terrible. As underhanded as his methods are, he does genuinely care about the working class, and is always fighting to get them the benefits they deserve. If he had any ulterior motives for sticking up for the small man in real life, they are not shown in this film. He also demonstrates a caring side whenever he interacts with anyone he genuinely likes. He has a loving relationship with his wife – to the point where he jokingly, though perhaps not disingenuously, calls her the real mastermind of his operation. He also notably develops a strong friendship with Frank’s daughter, Peggy.
Indeed, much like with his past accomplishments such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese proved even as late as 2019 a profound ability to make his audience feel for some of the ignoble people imaginable. Throughout the film, you’ll see subtitles next to minor characters that describe what happened to them after Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975. It’s not unlike the famous ending to George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which went into detail about what became of the characters after the events of the film – the main difference being that the exposition occurs throughout the narrative. None of the fates that befell these people had the same level of intrigue as Hoffa’s disappearance. A majority of them were killed off very unceremoniously within a relative short timeframe. The higher-ups simply decided they weren’t worth keeping around anymore, so they terminated their careers along with their lives.
This is precisely what dooms Hoffa. His sentence is commuted in 1971 by Richard Nixon in exchange for not partaking in any Teamsters activities until 1980. Hoffa, not being the one to play by the rules, immediately begins planning to reclaim his power. In his campaigns, he begins openly disrespecting the other Teamster leaders, thus invoking the ire of various crime families by extension. By 1973, the dons have become increasingly displeased with his behavior, and warn him not to go any further. In response, he tells Sheeran he “knows things” to which the dons aren’t aware he is privy.
The disappearance of Hoffa is thus a classic case of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Hoffa is warned at every juncture that he is travelling down a dangerous road, yet he abjectly refuses to swallow his pride and back down – even when the situation clearly doesn’t favor him. When the dons decide he cannot be kept alive any longer, they sanction his murder. Having taken the necessary precautions to ensure he isn’t surrounded by their associates, the natural choice to carry out the hit is the one person Hoffa trusts the most: Sheeran himself. True to form, the murder is swift and brutal. No grand speeches, no begging, no emotion – just an unceremonious death. This film then postulates that Hoffa’s body was cremated, thus providing an explanation as to why the authorities never found him.
All of these touches go a long way in illustrating what a dark deconstruction of the very kind of mafia films Mr. Scorsese himself pioneered The Irishman manages to be. Goodfellas itself thoroughly demonstrated that despite how glamorous the gangster life sounded like on paper, in reality, it was anything but. Sure, the criminals would enjoy many appealing benefits, but they could be killed off immediately if someone powerful considered them too much of a liability.
Many of the same sentiments are present in The Irishman, but they are notably magnified. As crazy as one would be to want to join the mafia after seeing Goodfellas, it did have an element of danger that some might consider exciting. This is absolutely not the case with The Irishman. You can get killed if you so much as put a toe out of line. On occasion, even that isn’t required. One hitman is killed because Russell assumed he talked to the authorities, observing him leaving a federal building without telling anyone. Unfortunately for the hitman, he did tell someone; the message was just not relayed to Russell himself. It demonstrates how quickly the life of crime can turn on its most devout practitioners.
While the mafia life is obviously demonstrated to be awful for those who get caught or murdered, The Irishman asks if avoiding either fate really means you’ve won. In the end, Sheeran evades any kind of karmic retribution for the murders he committed. While this sounds like the ultimate victory for an unrepentant criminal, it is not treated as a triumph at all. His reward for being a loyal mafia member and doing his time in jail for unrelated charged was absolutely nothing – less than absolutely nothing, in fact. His friends all die before him, and his family has cut him out of their lives. Peggy is especially furious at him for killing Hoffa due to the friendship they struck. No matter how much he wants to make it up to her, she will not hear of it. With the seeds of sociopathy sown in the Second World War when he forced German soldiers to dig their own graves, it’s fitting that the film bookends his career by having him arrange his own funeral.
To punctuate just how meaningless his trials and tribulations were, a nurse fails to recognize a picture of Jimmy Hoffa. Even when Sheeran tells her who he is, she still doesn’t understand. It is there that Sheeran realizes Jimmy Hoffa had become the Ozymandias of the twentieth century. All of the political maneuverings, unscrupulous dealings, and overwhelming power Hoffa obtained as a direct result of them amounted to very little in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, Sheeran and everyone else associated with Hoffa’s disappearance are permanently tied to the past. After their deaths, they will be well and truly gone. History buffs may know their names, but common people wouldn’t grasp their importance. To them, these real-life events may as well have been a work of fiction. Nothing beside remains.
Many people have pondered what will happen after they die. How will they be remembered? What will those still living say of them? What makes the ending of The Irishman so impactful is that it deals with a man who knows full well he will have no afterlife. He will be forgotten, and he can do nothing to prevent it. The film’s high regard drew more attention to Sheeran and Hoffa, yet theirs was an impact that faded away into obscurity the moment they left the spotlight. In light of this realization, all he can do is sit around and wait for the inevitable.
A lot of film historians tend to place the end of the New Hollywood era, which spawned many talented directors – including Mr. Scorsese himself – sometime around 1977 with the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars. The New Hollywood era defined itself with the bold risks directors took, so it therefore stands to reason that the debut of Star Wars, which taught investors to judge a film based on its ability to spawn merchandise rather than its artistic merits, brought the zeitgeist to an end.
However, I believe that is only half the story. It was also around 1977 that directors began creating weird vanity projects, often going several million dollars over their budget only to earn a meager fraction back due to their compromisingly limited appeal. As such, there were countless instances of directors making it big in the 1970s only to crash into the side of a cliff when the 1980s rolled around. At the same time, I don’t think the New Hollywood era was really dead in the following decades. Many of the greatest films from those decades such as Pulp Fiction clearly took a lot of inspiration from New Hollywood cornerstones. Furthermore, certain directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese himself were able to persist beyond the era that spawned them.
The exact moment the spirit of New Hollywood well and truly died occurred in 2018 when Paul Schrader, fresh off of the critical success of First Reformed, pinned the blame for its commercial failure on audiences. He believed that audiences were letting filmmakers down, thus explaining why he and his ilk hadn’t been making any serious works in 2010s. The directors who defined the New Hollywood era took note of the competition they faced provided by television and masters abroad, and stepped up their game. Mr. Schrader, on the other hand, arrogantly blamed his own lack of ambition on audiences, thus betraying the ethos of his own movement. He insinuated that audiences were letting them down when the opposite was far closer to the truth.
The reason this bears mentioning is because when placed next to its contemporaries, The Irishman, in the best way possible, sticks out like a sore thumb. By 2019, you would often hear cinephiles lamenting that “they don’t make [films] like they used to”, and the sudden appearance of The Irishman demonstrates why many of them felt the medium was past its prime. There is so much more ambition to be found in The Irishman than in the most acclaimed films of its day. This sprawling epic, which covered nearly seven decades’ worth of history, eclipsed the dime-a-dozen, small-town, largely plotless independent features critics enjoyed at the time in terms of style and substance.
The Irishman also serves as an interesting contrast to First Reformed itself. Mr. Schrader was a man who had, from an artistic standpoint, well and truly thrown in the towel, telling critics exactly what they wanted to hear after struggling to get their attention throughout the early twenty-first century. The result was a nihilistic, preachy piece with limited applicability. On top of that, his blaming the audience demonstrated a stubborn unwillingness to grow and learn from his failure. Mr. Scorsese, on the other hand, saw the changing times as a challenge, and after twelve years of finding some way to fund this passion project, turned to Netflix to see it through. While his own piece is similarly nihilistic, it is much more affecting due to the surprising amount of applicability it has. To use a cliché, this is a film that will stick with you long after the screen fades to black for the last time.
Even if it took Mr. Scorsese a long time to bring this project into reality, I can safely say The Irishman was worth the wait. I can see some people making the argument that Mr. Scorsese was recreating his past successes with The Irishman. Although the film is identifiably his, truly seeing what it has to offer reveals he was absolutely not resting his laurels. Whenever directors make films for a long enough time, it seems to be common for them to either get complacent or switch off. Mr. Scorsese wasn’t one of them. Over fifty years had passed since his debut film, and he proved he hadn’t come close to losing his touch. Combined with the unforgettable, charismatic performances courtesy of leading men Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, The Irishman stands out as a late-career gem and one of the best films of 2019.
Final Score: 8/10