“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
These words are often associated with the films of director John Ford (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” comes to mind.) but would not be out of place here. For Martin Scorsese’s deliberately paced, reflective “The Irishman” is somewhat reminiscent of Ford’s autumnal works—only with better make-up effects. (It only takes a little while to get used to the de-aging utilized here—and the actors move pretty well for their respective ages). If you remember “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” James Stewart’s elder statesman tries to set the record straight on certain past events, much like Robert De Niro’s aging mob figure tries to do in “The Irishman”. And while “The Irishman” hearkens back to Scorsese’s earlier classics, both in casting and substance, it is a haunting, memorable film in its own right, the work of a master filmmaker who in looking back, has lost none of his present power.
De Niro’s Frank Sheeran certainly has a story to tell from within the confines of his nursing home, a tale complete with fortuitous meetings with influential crime figures like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Joseph (Crazy Joe) Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), which result in his becoming an intimate of embattled union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Loyalty and respect are qualities in high demand and short supply in De Niro’s social circle. De Niro’s Sheeran is respected because of the loyalty he shows to the organization and his fellow workers. As a union truck driver, Sheeran impresses his higher-ups (as well as his lawyer Bill Bufalino, played by Ray Romano) after he is arrested and refuses to finger anyone else. This “integrity” motivates Bufalino to introduce Sheeran to his cousin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the two begin a life-long friendship founded mainly on respect and loyalty. Early on Sheeran unknowingly jeopardizes the friendship when he attempts to act on his own, but Russell’s loyalty spares Sheehan the wrath of his fellow mob leaders (such as Harvey Keitel’s Angelo Bruno).
Ultimately Russell introduces Frank to Hoffa, who is depicted as a charismatic union leader (with a dynamic, yet controlled Pacino playing him, who could expect anything else?) with his fingers in many pies, all the while striving to impose his will on both the union and any endeavor he feels the union should support. De Niro’s Sheehan and Pacino’s Hoffa hit it off famously, largely because of the mutual respect they afford each other. It’s a friendship that withstands the test of time—until Hoffa is released from prison and attempts to regain control of his union, no matter who he alienates in the process—in this case, the mob. It is here that De Niro’s Frank is forced to choose between his friendship with Hoffa and his loyalty to Russell. While it’s not difficult (given the circumstances and the source book’s raison d’etre) to see how this will play out, Scorsese and company probe a little deeper, making “The Irishman” into something akin to a valedictory comment on his past successes like “Casino” and “Good Fellas.”
Yet one should not expect another “Good Fellas”—although Scorsese occasionally teases us with Tarantino-like supertitles and the fates of certain characters. Here, it’s rather like Old Fellas (I couldn’t resist), though there is violence aplenty. Most of the shady minor characters are introduced with a caption stating their violent fate. Here though the violent deeds (and there are plenty, largely because of Sheeran’s use as a hitman) are not lovingly depicted with an exhilarating cinematic flourish, but in a rather detached manner. (A notable exception is when Sheeran savagely beats a shopowner who touched his daughter—to the horror of his disapproving daughter). In addition, “The Irishman” moves at a deliberate, steady pace (edited by Scorsese mainstay Thelma Schoonmaker) that sustains interest throughout its three and a half-hour running time (Yeah, it’s a little long, but you’ll rarely be looking at your watch.) The performances are all pitch-perfect, including Stephen Graham as Hoffa’s disrespectful, volatile nemesis Anthony (“Tony Pro’) Provenzano, Ray Romano’s clever lawyer, and Kathrine Narducci, Welker White and Stephanie Kurtzba as the protagonists’ spouses. (Anna Paquin is also on hand as De Niro’s largely silent, reactive daughter.)
De Niro, Pacino and Pesci deliver subtle, complex, and sometimes quietly devastating portrayals that gain even more shadings as the characters get older. Mortality is very much on the minds of these men, as well as the filmmakers. Pacino’s Hoffa makes impulsive decisions that wreck any headway he might make, yet toward the end he assumes a rather fatalistic approach, reckoning that whatever happens will happen. By the end, Pesci’s quietly ruthless, pragmatic Russell also takes note of his approaching years, his business successes—and also his inability to endear himself to people he sees as family (like De Niro/Sheeran’s children). De Niro’s character makes no illusions about himself—though he tries to portray himself as the good, protective father, he remains aware of the damage he has inflicted on his family. He winds up a true loner, a solitary figure with only the grave awaiting him.
Just one more thing (to quote Lieutenant Columbo): Netflix produced the film and it will be available to stream in the near future. However, I wholly recommend that you see “The Irishman” in a movie theatre if at all possible. (I’m sure “Marty” would like it too.)