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Wednesday, 06 November 2019 03:22

Part 2: Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro's The Irishman

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Jim DiEugenio reviews Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro’s long and expensive new film, The Irishman, which propagates many of the myths surrounding Frank Sheeran found in Brandt’s book.


After reading the first part of this review, which focused on the book about Frank Sheeran by Charles Brandt, it’s hard to understand why director Martin Scorsese and actor/producer Robert DeNiro were intent on making a film from his book, I Heard you Paint Houses. And, further, why they would spend 160 million to do so. That point is important to discuss, but I will delay speculation on that issue for later in this review. The fact is, they did make the film. So, let us review and analyze the product before us.

The first thing that struck me about the picture is its length. It three and a half hours long with no intermission. To put it frankly: Lawrence of Arabia justifies its length; The Irishman does not. There are many scenes that are simply extended or not necessary at all. When Sheeran goes to Detroit to meet Hoffa for the last time, we see him getting on the plane. Then after he kills him, the film shows him returning through the airport. Why? When the hit team goes to pick up Hoffa for that meeting from the restaurant, the picture depicts the drive and the actors in the front seat get into a stupid discussion about the fish that the driver previously had in the car. That is not a mistype. They discuss a fish as they go to pick up Hoffa, in order to kill him. If this was supposed to be a kind of Pinteresque/David Mamet touch, it did not work for this viewer. These are not the only scenes that could have been either cut or shortened. Not by a long shot.

Then, there is the protracted, over-extended ending section. The dramatic and intellectual ending of the film is the murder of Hoffa and the cremation of his body. But the picture goes on and on from there. We see Sheeran being tried in court for other crimes, we see him in prison with Bufalino, and then there is a long section after he gets out with scenes with his monsignor—two of these. We then see him trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter, falling down at home, and being placed in a retirement center. We then watch as he picks out a casket and chooses a cemetery lot etc. After the film was finished and I was driving home, I tried to figure out what that long extended ending was about. When I got home, I realized why. The film makers were trying to make Sheeran into some kind of sympathetic character; they were trying to wring pathos from the audience.

Think about that. If we view Sheeran through the eyes of Charles Brandt, why on earth should he be any kind of sympathetic character? Here is a man who killed his friend and employer. And who put up no protest about it. And, according to Brandt, he then killed many other people in what were clear cut cases of murder. There was nothing fair or just about them, since they were allegedly mob hits. Why on earth should anyone feel any kind of sympathy for this guy?

But in a deeper sense, as I have already made the argument for, if Sheeran is a liar, and if he conned Brandt, and if the book then conned the film makers, in my eyes, that makes it even worse. Why would we feel for a man who simply was a flimflam artist? But, further, his flimflammery was over a variety of serious subjects (e.g. the Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the murder of Jimmy Hoffa).

In comparison with Brandt, the film stays pretty much faithful to the story line of the book. Since the book is about 280 pages long, the distended length is chalked up to director Martin Scorsese’s dilated approach. Another example of that approach is—if you know Scorsese—pretty predictable. To give one example: In the book, Sheeran notes a brief anecdote about an organizing battle between the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO over a taxi company. He says that a method they would use was to steal an idle cab every once in a while and drive it into the river. Well, with Scorsese, this becomes a whole fleet of taxis parked conveniently near the river and all of them are thrown into the water at once. If that was not enough, other taxis are then blown up with explosives.

The problem with this false, over-the-top treatment is that one wonders: How did Sheeran and Hoffa lose the organizing battle? Because they did. (Brandt, p. 137) I guess the rationale for these scenes are, if you have 160 million to spend, you spend it. Forget what actually happened. Because in the book, the author states that they paid the cops to look the other way for each taxi driven into the river. In reality, with the wholesale destruction depicted here, there would have been front page stories, a police investigation, and court hearings.

The script also follows the aspect adapted by Sheeran and Brandt from the fairy tale Giancana concoction Double Cross. That is, Giancana made a deal with the Kennedys over the 1960 election, but Bobby would not let up on them once they got to the White House. The script has Sheeran saying years later something like, go figure that out. For anyone with any brains or knowledge, there isn’t anything to figure. Because it never happened.

But there is a deeper fault here. The battle between Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy was the stuff of real epic drama. There was a lot at stake. And there were moral problems on both sides of the war. Unlike others, I do not think this was RFK’s finest hour. There were many things that chief investigator Walter Sheridan did that I believe were unethical. Rigging a lie detector test being only one of them. I do not know if RFK was aware of all these shenanigans. But, beyond that, what RFK thought about the problem turned out to be at least partly wrong. Because once Hoffa left the scene, the Teamsters union was not cleaned up. That effort went on for decades. So here is an actual political conflict—not the phony Giancana one—that one could really get involved in on a number of levels: the historic, the personal, the dramatic, and the epic. What do Scorsese, DeNiro, and writer Steve Zaillian do with this huge, violent confrontation?

I hate to say it, but all the picture does is pay lip service to that titanic struggle. Bobby Kennedy is in the film for about five minutes. And those scenes are not at all gripping. You can see newsreels on You Tube that are much more interesting and intense than what is depicted in this film. I don’t see how one can make a less complementary comment on the picture than that. But it happens to be true. Apparently, no one involved in the film in any creative way thought this actual battle was worth spending much time or effort on. Making up scenes about dozens of taxis being thrown into the river somehow was.

The film depicts the paper mâché scene about David Ferrie meeting Sheeran and giving him a weapons delivery to take to Florida. It cleverly introduces that episode by having actor Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino tell Sheeran, words to the effect: in Baltimore you will meet a fairy named Ferrie. For those who saw Pesci play Ferrie in the film JFK, the irony and humor are neatly understated. The film then depicts the almost impossible to digest hand off to Howard Hunt. The movie does not include the delivery by Sheeran of the rifles to Ferrie in the weeks leading up the Kennedy assassination. The JFK murder is depicted in the film as Sheeran, Hoffa and others in some kind of ice cream parlor as the bulletin comes on about President Kennedy’s murder. As this occurs, the characters move closer to the TV set to hear the news. Everyone except Hoffa, that is, who stays seated at his table eating his ice cream. But there is little doubt about who killed Kennedy according to this picture. Because later in the film in a discussion between Bufalino and Sherran, the latter says that Hoffa is a pretty high up guy. Bufalino replies that if they can kill the president, they can kill the president of a union. We are supposed to buy the idea that the Mafia killed the president. On the word of Joe Pesci playing Bufalino. Hmm

What is also a little more than baffling is the fact that the script largely discounts the interactions between Hoffa, Fitzsimmons, and the Nixon White House and all their ramifications. Again, the reason for this escapes me. Because, unlike the baloney about the JFK assassination and the Giancana deal, these are all true and pretty much proven. Because of his bitter hatred of the Kennedys, Hoffa did try and develop a relationship with Richard Nixon. And after he was imprisoned, he did work through channels to get Nixon to grant him a pardon. There are even tapes on this now. (Chicago Tribune, 4/8/2001, article by James Warren) But the White House tricked Hoffa by putting restrictions on his pardon. Hoffa was challenging these in court at the time of his murder. Clearly, Frank Fitzsimmons, who Hoffa picked as his replacement, was working with the White House to trade a Teamsters Nixon endorsement in return for Nixon making sure Hoffa could not run against him in 1976. This is important, some would call it crucial information to understand, but the script really underplays it.

Which brings us to two interrelated points about this 210-minute saga. If one is not really interested in history, why make a film out of a book that tries to seriously impact on historical matters of the utmost importance? For all its failings, the book by Brandt does a much better job of supplying details and context to the Fitzsimmons/Nixon interchange and how it impacted the plot to kill Hoffa. If there had been no restrictions on the Nixon pardon, Hoffa would have easily defeated his replacement without undertaking a bitter crusade, one which touched on Fitzsimmons’ record with the Mafia loans from the Teamster pension fund. But in watching this film, one cannot really understand that rather key issue. The script and Scorsese’s interests are elsewhere.

Which leads me to an interview that the director gave before the picture’s release. Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly that he was not actually concerned about what really happened to Hoffa. He then added, “What would happen if we knew exactly how the JFK assassination worked out? What does it do? It gives us a couple of good articles, a couple of movies and people taking about it at dinner parties.” He then added that his film is really about Sheeran and what he had to do and how he made a mistake.

In my opinion, this tells us a lot about Scorsese; both his mentality and his career. Concerning the first, can the man be serious? When Oliver Stone made a film about a measured hypothesis of what happened to Kennedy, it unleashed a tidal wave of controversy which enveloped the nation for over a year. This was unprecedented in cinema history. If that movement had not been diverted by the MSM, who knows where it would have gone? But it gave us not a few articles, but a whole flood of books, TV shows, newspaper articles, front page magazine covers plus an act of congress to declassify all the documents on the JFK case. And that act has still not been fulfilled 21 years after the legislation’s authorizing agency expired. So, what on earth is the guy talking about?

But what makes it worse is that what he endorses, namely Sheeran’s story, simply does not survive real examination. In reality, it’s the stuff of John Ford’s films, which the fine film critic Vernon Young memorably described as mythomania masquerading as myth. Which is odd, because it was those kinds of films that, early in his career, Scorsese dismissed as the kinds of pictures he did not want to make. (And make no mistake about this, because the recent film about Nicola Tesla, The Current War, involved both Scorsese and Zaillian. And in its own way, it is as crushingly disappointing as this picture.)

Does The Irishman redeem itself in its making? Not really. Al Pacino can be a good actor (e.g. Dick Tracy, Dog Day Afternoon). He can also be a guy walking his way to a huge paycheck. Scorsese let him walk. Pacino is not Hoffa. He is Pacino. If you want to see the difference between creative method acting and what was called at the Actor’s Studio indicative acting, compare what Pacino does here with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the 1992 film Hoffa. DeNiro as Sheeran tries to find the center of a character who, because he’s a confection, doesn’t really have one. Therefore, the fine actor delivers a studied, surface performance. When DeNiro strikes the center of a role—as he did in The Last Tycoon, or The Untouchables—he inhabits his character and the exterior simply becomes a surface to reflect that transformation. That doesn’t happen here. Joe Pesci does a decent enough job as Bufalino, but, again, the director didn’t push him hard enough to fill in points of character geography that are missing from the script. None of the other performances are worth noting. For example, Jessie Plemmons plays Chuck O’Brien. This is the fourth time I have seen him. Any difference between this performance and the prior three are due to hair style and costume.

In his early films, Scorsese seemed to think that the aim of film art was to show us men with guns shooting each other and then supplying the audience with lots of gore and blood. For example, in the final shoot out in Taxi Driver, the director made sure that Travis Bickle blew off one of his assailant’s hands and the next one’s eye. Then the guy with the blown off hand arose and started hitting Bickle with this severed stump. This was Scorsese’s idea of realism. With a few exceptions, as in The Departed, he doesn’t do that anymore. But there is something else that has impacted Scorsese’s directorial approach and his oeuvre.

That something else was Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. That TV crime series based itself around an original and fascinating idea. Let’s take a perfectly average middle-class male, a high school science teacher. Let us equip him with a middle-class family and house. Growing frustrated with his economic problems and introduced to a drug/crime element through his drug enforcing brother in law, Walter White evolved into an amoral, drug dealing killer, as did his high school partner Jesse Pinkman. That concept was original and daring. And it was treated with intelligence, a sense of irony, and a realism which did not include people getting their hands and eyes blown off. It was so interesting and well done that it created a mini-sensation with both the public and in the film industry. For me, Gilligan’s approach has made Scorsese’s both uninteresting and a bit obsolete. Gilligan showed there was a way to make crime sagas without having to deal with what are, in the end, pathological, dedicated and two-dimensional criminals. Therefore, you didn’t have to look for excuses to throw corpses out of tall buildings and have them land on car hoods.

That approach was, I thought, limited enough. But with the Scorsese interview quoted above, we can see why it was such. And why The Irishman is a crushing disappointment.

Last modified on Friday, 08 November 2019 05:58
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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