The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

I think this might be my favorite film of this decade, or at least tied in that top spot with First Reformed (which I've still only seen the one time when it first came out). My two favorite films of the 2010s are directed by old men famous for their work from the 70s. I'm not sure whether that says more about me or about the state of the industry in our present moment.

The Irishman is an extremely dense work. Despite the sorrow that runs underneath the whole thing, I seriously enjoyed luxuriating in the amount of detail that Scorsese weaves throughout.

One of this film’s many virtues is the way it threads together the history of mid-20th century mob activity with the history of American politics, suggesting that these two organizations were remarkably influential upon one another. Some of its implications, about the JFK assassination and the Bay of Pigs operation, are extremely conspiratorial, albeit plausible enough. But there’s one moment in here that eschews conspiracy, that quickly gets at the heart of Scorsese’s rendering of this theme both here and in other films. We get just one brief flashback of Frank Sheeran’s time at the army, a chilling memory of two enemy soldiers whom he executed after having them dig their own graves. In this moment, we see how the qualities that made Sheeran a good soldier - his ability to follow orders, his emotionless resolve - are also the same qualities that made him so useful to the mob. This is a more damning critique of the American political system than whatever else the film implies about the Kennedys, Watergate, or any other famous instance of political corruption and malfeasance. And most impressively, this is not even the film’s focus! It’s just one idea in Scorsese’s multi-layered masterpiece.

And a note on the trio of main performances: all three of these actors are doing some of their finest work to date, and I think my favorite of the three is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino absolutely nails the comic aspect of Hoffa’s showboating persona. He dominates the screen every second he’s there. But the thing that’s so resonant about this performance is the way Pacino cuts through the bluster; Hoffa is rarely quiet or reflective, but Pacino’s nuances subtly brings these reflective, human qualities out of him. I feel it most deeply when he’s riding in that backseat with Frank. Now having said that, my favorite moment of the film is the way Pacino delivers this missive: “You charge a guy with a gun… with a knife, you run away.”

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