The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that The Irishman is so different from the other gangster films made by Martin Scorsese early in his career. It is, in so many ways, a film made by and about old men and as such it has a much more subdued and reflective feel than his earlier, more action-oriented films.

Al Pacino is 79, Scorsese is 77, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are 76. Steve Zaillian, who adapted the screenplay from Charles Brandt's I Heard You Paint Houses, is a relative youngster at a mere 66.

The film opens with Frank Sheeran (De Niro), in his early 80s, and living in a nursing home. This framing device is used to tell his story in flashbacks and it is quite a story: his mentor was Northeastern Pennsylvania crime figure Russell Bufalino (Pesci); he was the right hand man for Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino); was a hit man for both of them (the "paint houses" reference); and, according to him, a peripheral player in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the assassination of JFK, and the Teamster's bitter battle with Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department.

As Sheeran starts telling his story, it is not clear whether he is talking to us through Brandt or directly. Either way, it is clear fairly early on that he may be an unreliable narrator and some of the claims he makes here were certainly challenged by historians when Brandt's book was released (after Sheeran's death) in 2004.

However, true or not, Scorsese has given us a fascinating character study. Sheeran is a follower who is most comfortable with someone else calling the shots (literally on occasions) and this is established very early on with the scene in Germany towards the end of WWII, one of several such instances he related to Brandt.

When I get to see the film again, I will watch out for any significance of the several scenes during the cross-country road trip that Sheeran and Bufalino make with their wives which serves as a secondary framing device within the larger frame of the nursing home conversations. It seemed superfluous on this viewing, but you are a couple of instances in before you realise that it is going to be an ongoing motif.

I had seen online criticism of Scorsese for the lack of roles for women in the film and I don't understand this at all. Sheeran, the unreliable narrator, is looking back on and reflecting on his life. For him, it was the men he looked up to and wanted to be accepted by who were the significant figures, not the women. The one scene in which we see a woman in a powerful position, where Josephine Hoffa (Weller White) is giving her husband advice about strategy, which he heeds, is included because, from Sheeran's world view, it is the kind of thing that would stand out in his memory as outside the norm.

Of course, the clever twist from running with the unreliable narrator angle is that Sheeran does not realise that two events with women have substantially influenced the rest of his life and his emotional state towards the end of it - his estrangement from his daughter, Peggy (the always wonderful Anna Paquin) and his telephone conversation with Josephine Hoffa two days after her husband has disappeared.

The three leads are all superb. De Niro plays Sheeran as someone who wants desperately to be respected and belong and who has an inflated view of his own importance and his capacity to operate as a moderating influence on Hoffa. Yet when he has to make a choice between the two men he looks up to the most, we are never in any doubt about which way he will jump. His total lack of insight in his conversations with the young priest towards the end of his life are consistent with the way in which making that decision, which would paralyse most people, can be handled by deciding who is the top dog when it comes to giving him orders.

While the film is told from Sheeran's point of view, it is equally much about Jimmy Hoffa and Pacino has done his career-best work here. If this is Sheeran's view of Hoffa we are getting, he displays more intelligence and good judgment here than in any other part of his life. This Hoffa is a much more relatable character then either Sheeran or Bufalino and we get to see both the good side (his fierce love for "his" union and the members and his unwillingness to take a backward step where they are concerned) and bad side (pretty much everything else) in the most balanced character in the film.

The massive supporting cast (428 listed on IMDB) flesh out an engrossing picture of this world and there were times, when cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto was focused in on individual or group faces, that I was reminded of those Italian neo-realists that Scorsese admires so much.

I was not a fan of the de-ageing CGI, although its shortcomings may be less obvious when the film transfers to Netflix's streaming platform. When you see De Niro's and Pacino's faces full screen and adjusted to look 40 years younger, they just look like they have had lots of bad work done.

The soundtrack - a mixture of songs from the 1950s to the 1990s and original music written by Robbie Robertson - is also excellent, although it is a shame that only Robertson's "Theme for The Irishman" appears on the original motion picture soundtrack Sony has released. Given that the producers need to get a return on the reported $160 million that it cost to make, maybe we will get a second release of Robertson's original music.

If you can, get to see this on a cinema screen rather than on TV. I will try to catch it again before it goes to streaming.

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