Martin Scorsese has distilled a lifetime of expertise into this outstanding meditation on the mafia, ageing and the loss of agency
Three people can keep a secret only when two of them are dead.” This is the maxim of slot-mouthed hitman Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, the wintry and minor-key crime-conspiracy epic adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s bestseller and directed by Martin Scorsese: produced by him and his star Robert De Niro, along with his longtime producing colleagues Irwin Winkler, Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
The three people with the terrible secret in this film are first Frank himself, second Russell Bufalino, the lizardly and quietly-spoken mafioso played by Joe Pesci, who brokers Frank’s promotion within the Teamsters union in the early 1960s, and third, the legendary Teamsters boss and Frank’s own father figure, Jimmy Hoffa, who famously disappeared in 1975: an ebullient, narcissistic grandstander played by Al Pacino. It is only when two of them are dead – Bufalino from complications following a stroke, and Hoffa from complications following getting shot in the back of the head – that poor Frank feels himself aware that he can unburden himself, if he wants, about the terrible secret that has been metastasizing inside him.
In his old people’s home, in his wheelchair and his Teamsters cap, Frank listens with that strange reticent grin of grandfatherly indulgence to the young FBI men who beg him to open up about the Hoffa disappearance, even as he teeters on the brink of the grave, and the fresh-faced young Catholic priest who prays with him in his room. But Frank can’t bring himself to say the words. Perhaps he imagines this is loyalty to his toxic-macho omerta code, but actually he amputated his own ability to feel remorse or understanding long ago. And it is this that caused the terrible rift with his daughter Peggy, played by Anna Paquin, when the news gets out that Hoffa has “disappeared”. “My daughter Peggy disappeared from my life that very day,” rumbles Frank. With masterly simplicity, Scorsese and Paquin show how the silent Peggy guesses exactly what has happened when Frank guiltily reveals that he has not yet telephoned Jimmy’s wife (now widow) Jo to offer help or condolence.
There are plenty of outstanding movies on the Academy’s best picture list (along with some mediocre ones, and outstanding ones left off it) but The Irishman is the one with the ambition, the reach, the amplitude and the thrilling need to take on a whole world, and to make it live through a single person’s story, a human thread. It is a movie which richly repays repeat viewing on screens big and small. It was only on a revisit that I appreciated quite why poor old Frank at the last, secretly lonely and scared by death, asks for his door to be left open – it is what Jimmy himself used to do, when he and Frank shared a hotel suite away on conventions. Nervy Jimmy left the double-doors open to that adjoining room, where his trusted lieutenant Frank is bunking down on the fold-out couch. And of course the title: Scorsese leaves it to us to notice that “The Irishman” is not just Frank’s nickname; it is also that of President Kennedy, the occult nexus of power-groupings and the focus of Jimmy’s fascination and resentment.
The Irishman is of course in many ways a mafia film with classic mafia tropes, and a superstar cast who bring with them a physical sense-memory of great mafia pictures of the past: these actors helped invent the language in which these stories were told. But The Irishman is also a political picture which shows – as mafia films traditionally do not – that gangsters do not exist in a miraculous vacuum, but are a function or dysfunction of bad politics. The Irishman is about the tragic corruption of the Teamsters union, with Hoffa’s willingness to loan money to the mob from the union’s pension fund, and it reaches back to the tough, sinewy graft-and-corruption pictures of postwar American cinema, such as Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954).
And The Irishman revives a way of thinking that has not been fashionable for years: what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics – or American cinema. The film touches on the conspiracy theories about the mafia resenting a president whom they reportedly got elected with vote-rigging, but who repaid them only by failing to oust Castro, failing to reinstate their Cuban casino heaven, and then taking out their anger and humiliation on the very mobsters who sponsored Kennedy’s electoral success. Of course, these ideas are partly down to the blowhard opinionating of Hoffa, who had had his own views on the Kennedy killing, and these percolated through Sheeran into Brandt’s book and from there, a little diluted, into Scorsese’s film. But it is fascinating to compare The Irishman to Oliver Stone’s JFK, and there’s a weird link: in JFK, Joe Pesci played David Ferrie, the pilot rumoured to be linked with Lee Harvey Oswald – and Ferrie pops up again here (played by Louis Vanaria).
Martin Scorsese famously could only get this film made with Netflix, because only Netflix had the financial firepower for its digital “youthification” effects. Some have professed themselves unconvinced by these; I can only say I got used to them very quickly, although I do concede that perhaps they worked better with Pesci and Pacino than with De Niro. But really De Niro’s style is utterly right for this film: his stolid, shrugging lack of emotion makes the purest sense. And in fact the movie is not very youthified: it unfolds at an andante pace and is about getting old. There is something bleak and shocking about the old geezers playing bowls in the prison yard, with Pesci’s Bufalino now reduced to a blinking, leathery old tortoise in a wheelchair. This is the Beckettian strain in Scorsese: his characters are no longer tough guys, but wizened old figures maundering away to each other, immobile in wheelchairs or senior-citizen home seats, with blankets over their knees. In The Irishman, Scorsese has found a hypnotically watchable late style, a rich, fierce movie about the ebb tide of power.