Ah those good ole days! Whacking people for the mob, driving a truck full of guns bound for the Bay of Pigs, running a union for the Teamsters… the elderly Frank Sheeran has so many happy memories of a full and active life. Nowadays, sadly reduced by old age and infirmity, Frank resides in an aged care facility, where we find him reminiscing about the years he spent working for mobster, Russell Bufalino and labour boss, Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman suggests that not many gangsters make it through to pensionable age, but if you are one of the lucky ones there’s plenty of room for nostalgia. Frank is still reluctant to share the details of his life with the FBI, but via the magic of the movies he tells his story directly to you – the viewer – in a three-and-a-half hour epic one could happily wish was twice as long.
Martin Scorsese’s first feature for Netflix, made at a cost to the network of US$159 million, is the source of much brouhaha with cinema chains who have only limited access to the film before it begins streaming towards the end of this month. Don’t delay if you’d prefer to see it on the big screen.
Many of Scorsese’s greatest hits have been gangster flicks – namely Mean Streets(1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). The same mob connections have made the careers of the lead actors in this movie: Robert De Niro, who plays Frank; Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), and Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa). For Hollywood, crime has always paid.
The Irishman is a Bildungsroman for a career criminal, told in an even, methodical manner that makes Frank sound like a retired company man discussing the way his firm built the business.
In fairytale fashion he begins as a poor truck driver who encounters Russell Bufalino quite by accident, and renews his acquaintance when he is suspected of defrauding the meat packers for whom he has been working.
Frank’s major attraction to the crime bosses is his abiding loyalty and willingness to follow orders. He is a working class guy with a family to feed who sees the mob as a golden opportunity to advance his prospects. He may have a few qualms about the things they want him to do, but knows he’ll be rewarded for obeying orders and put himself in danger by refusing. He makes pragmatic choices and develops an alternative moral code to justify his compliance. It’s a trait he seems to have learnt in the army.
In Frank’s worldview being loyal to Russell and his associates is a sacred imperative, even if it means murdering a long succession of characters who showed less loyalty, or simply didn’t pay their debts. When someone says: “I heard you paint houses,” this effectively means: “I heard you kill people as a job.” Another cute piece of mob lingo is “going to school”, meaning “going to prison”.
When Russell and the boys pitch in with Jimmy Hoffa, the all-powerful head of the Teamsters, they decide that Frank is the reliable security man the union boss needs. “I heard you paint houses,” is virtually the first thing Jimmy says to Frank. As their relationship develops they will become inseparable. Frank even shares Jimmy’s hotel rooms, sleeping on the couch, or on a separate bed. In one scene the two men sit around talking in their pyjamas, as if it were a slumber party.
Being the reliable guy that he is, Frank is put in charge of one of Jimmy’s unions while still doing occasional jobs for the mob. In the early 1960s both these roles bring him into contact with the political sphere. In one scene he drives a truck full of guns down to Florida, where the weapons are to be used in Kennedy’s abortive raid on Cuba. It’s spelled out with great clarity that JFK was elected with the full support of the mafia bosses who expected him to topple Castro and restore their lucrative rackets in Havana.
It’s also made clear that Kennedy incurred the displeasure of the gangsters by not making good on his side of the deal. Even more disturbing was the law and order campaign waged by his brother Bobby, as Attorney-General. The major target of this campaign was Hoffa, who will eventually be brought down and sent to “school”, where he clashes with another crooked union boss, Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham).
The tangle of alliances and rivalries between the mob, Hoffa and Provenzano, along with growing political and legal pressures, will have murderous consequences. This would lead to Hoffa’s disappearance on 30 July, 1982. It’s a mystery with no official explanation, but Shreeran’s memoirs offer a persuasive account of what happened.
The last movement of the movie unfolds in a slow diminuendo, as Frank recalls the mob bosses’ fall from power, their gradual conviction and imprisonment. By that stage we feel almost sorry for Russell and the boys – a group of old men sitting around behind bars, with blankets on their knees. They can look back on a job well done, as they saw organised crime inflitrate every aspect of American public life, from the union movement to the White House.
Like almost every new American movie there is a none-too-subtle message in this portrait of crime and corruption spreading like a cancer through the body politic. We probably won’t have to wait 50 years for filmmakers to tell the story of a US administration in cahoots, not with the Italian mafia, but the Russian version. The main difference this time is that the Justice Department is trying to conceal the evidence rather than bring it to light, but there’s a bit too much to keep under the lid. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were great choices as Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, but it’s a shame Peter Lorre isn’t around to play Lev Parnas.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Steven Zaillian, after a book by Charles Brandt
Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Katherine Narducci
USA, rated MA 15+, 209 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 November, 2019