It is without question that Martin Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living film directors, so I hope he won’t take it as too much of a backhanded compliment when I say that …
It is without question that Martin Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living film directors, so I hope he won’t take it as too much of a backhanded compliment when I say that “The Irishman” is not the best film that Martin Scorsese has ever made.
But it is absolutely the most Martin Scorsese film that Martin Scorsese has ever made.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Marty, who managed early on to synthesize some of the most appealing aspects of his equally famous film school peers, by capturing the epic scope and operatic profundity of Francis Ford Coppola’s historically significant narratives, and wedding them to the satisfyingly squalid, viscerally grimy, gutter-level antics of Brian De Palma’s glorified slasher flicks.
Marty not only fused together highbrow and low-born culture in his films, but he did it with a far lighter touch of pretension than many of his generational peers, plus an under-appreciated but devastating deadpan wit, which is why, I suspect, so many of my fellow film nerds responded so strongly to Scorsese’s blanket dismissal of the Marvel movies, since we saw Marty as one of us.
Even as a fan of the Marvel movies, I’ll freely concede that Scorsese raised some valid points in his recent remarks to the press about how formulaic those films can be, which makes it ironic that so much of “The Irishman,” an effortlessly engaging and flawlessly assembled film on par with Sergio Leone’s 1984 “Once Upon a Time in America,” nonetheless plays out like a greatest hits album of Marty’s recurring tropes as a filmmaker.
A diegetic soundtrack made up mostly of pop chart hits from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s? Marty’s got you covered. The surprisingly effective stunt-casting of comedians and cult celebrities in prominent supporting roles? If you liked Dick Smothers and Joe Bob Briggs in “Casino,” you’ll enjoy Ray Romano as a mob-connected union lawyer, and rapper/chef Action Bronson as a casket seller.
Remember former real-life cop Bo Dietl, who arrested Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”? He’s as crude and boisterous as ever in “The Irishman,” enlivening his bit part as a union organizer. Even if you only care about the A-list players in Scorsese’s stable of frequent collaborators — Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, “The Irishman” of the film’s title — Marty has brought the old gang back for you. He’s even got De Niro playing another non-Italian, as he did in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”
And yet, “The Irishman” is not simply a retread of Scorsese’s previous output. Scorsese has a sharp eye for successive generations of talent, casting Jesse Plemons from AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Stephen Graham and Bobby Cannavale from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and Anna Paquin from “The Piano,” “True Blood” and the “X-Men” films (making her a Marvel movie alum of sorts).
Most notably, “The Irishman” boasts Al Pacino on its roster, marking only the fourth time he and De Niro have co-starred in the same film, and the first time Pacino has starred in a film directed by Scorsese.
As with “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” “The Irishman” is based on a nonfiction book, drawn from the firsthand account of one of the guys who was close to the action of organized crime on the East Coast during its mid-20th century heyday. Specifically, we see the rise of Frank Sheeran, from a union delivery truck driver in Philadelphia in the 1950s, to the right-hand man and best friend of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, played by Pacino.
While Pacino never fully managed to leave behind the undertones of Foghorn Leghorn that he picked up from playing the bellowing Army Lt. Col. Frank Slade in Martin Brest’s 1992 “Scent of a Woman,” he has at least learned to tone it down, and he even delivers a fairly decent mimicry of Hoffa’s gruff Midwestern accent in “The Irishman.”
Scorsese is no stranger to using real-life American history as a lens through which to view his characters’ development over the decades of their lives, although “The Irishman” highlights President Kennedy’s ties to union and mafia figures alike, as well as his fumbling of the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his subsequent assassination, in ways that feel more suited to Oliver Stone’s oeuvre in the 1990s (we even see alleged Kennedy assassination conspiracy participant David Ferrie, who was previously played by Pesci in Stone’s 1991 “JFK”).
But what strikes me most is Scorsese returning to one of his favorite character dynamics, that of the protagonist who struggles in vain to play peacemaker between his allies, with both sides regarding him as a genuine friend, even as they escalate their feud with each other and demand that their man in the middle choose between them.
It’s precisely this Catch-22 that condemns Sheeran, a man whose rise through the ranks of the union was guaranteed by his steadfast refusal to name names, when he was caught diverting his deliveries to the mob, because his unwavering loyalty is turned against itself, when Hoffa goes from running the Teamsters to being a thorn in the union’s side, and the higher powers behind the scenes tell Frank that Jimmy needs to go.
What I love about Marty, much like Quentin Tarantino, is that he understands the language of guys so well. Whether Hoffa is butting heads with equally hard-headed fellow union leader Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Graham) or rebuking the earnest attempts of mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci, cast strikingly against type as a measured man of restraint here) to throw him a face-saving lifeline, it’s by turns hilarious and tragic to see how guys in power are haunted and damned by their own ego, hubris and machismo.
While De Niro’s Sheeran is entirely absent of these sins, he still loses his best friend, his family’s love, and his soul as a result of his same willingness to carry out orders, honed overseas during World War II, that drew the positive notice of the union, the mob and Hoffa in the first place.
Scorsese employs a combination of prosthetic makeup and computer-generated imagery to make De Niro, Pesci and his other actors look older and younger than their actual ages, and while it teases the limits of the Uncanny Valley around its edges (De Niro’s naturally brown eyes are rendered so vividly blue, I suppose to make him appear more authentically Irish, that I was reminded of the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”), I was mostly impressed by the deftness of its execution.
This matters because “The Irishman,” perhaps more than any other film that Scorsese has made, delves deeply into the final years of his aging criminals’ lives, as they look back on the wreckage that their hollow achievements have wrought, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” surveying the ruins of the once-great king’s colossal monument in the lone and level sands.
I get it. Marty is 77 years old. When you get that much closer to the end than the beginning, you’re going to spend more time thinking about what you’re left with, and what it all meant. And yet, by his own account, Marty is as inconstant in his Catholicism as ever, so while we may see some of his sinners turning to priests for comfort, the concept of repentance remains well beyond their ken.
“The Irishman” is three and a half hours long, but it’s worth it. As long as Scorsese sees fit to share his stories with us, we should appreciate them while we still have him around, because he’s sharing a vital swath of American life, with an élan few other historical accounts can rival.
You’re still one of us, Marty, whether you’ll have us or not.