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Much of what has been written about The Irishman focuses on two things: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro reuniting for yet another mafia movie and the use of special effects to rejuvenate all of veteran actors cast as the action covers the whole second half of the twentieth century.It is useful to revisit those claim since both start from the idea of The Irishman as a summary/repetition of the filmmaker’s procedures throughout his career.
Scorsese and De Niro worked together on three gangster films before The Irishman: Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).The first one was mostly concerned with describing the small gangsters Scorsese met in New York’s Italian-American community he grew up and has very little to do with the grandiloquent ambitions of the later films.The last two, especially Goodfellas, combine the energy of the disorganized capital organized crime movies of the 1930s with the epic tone and more pronounced ambitions that Coppola lent to the genre. (The Public Enemy and Scarface were as about American capital and society as The Godfather, but only the later one announces this in bold letters in its opening scene).Films in which the rampant adventures of its criminal characters mix with an idea of consumer society pushed to the limit, organized crime as the ultimate expression of a national ideology.
The Irishman, on the other hand, has nothing of the frenetic pace of the previous two films, on the contrary it is a morose film made in the key of the reminiscences of a man at the doors of death.De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is not a mobster like the criminal he’d played in Goodfellas, much less Casino’s crime bureaucrat/accountant, but a hired gun that gives service to that world, a good private soldier.If you want a late Scorsese movie that suggests a remake of Goodfellas, the movie buff needs to settle for The Wolf of Wall Street who repeats much of the dramatic arc, picaresque misadventures and coke-fueled editing style of the previous movie but proposes that gangsterism eliminated organized crime as an intermediary and settled directly in the financial market.More important is to note that Goodfellas and Casino were movies about the connections between organized crime and capitalism, while The Irishman is more of a conspiracy tale about the relationship between the mob, capital, and American politics. The earlier films are about gangsterism as an ideology and The Irishman is about gangsterism as a political force. A great exercise in historical mythology about the eminence of the mob in the American transformative period between the beginning of the Cold War and the rise of Ronald Reagan (that the true Frank Sheeran version of the story is almost certainly fabricated is of little interest here since the movie is interested with conspiracy and myth).
It was Robert De Niro who first pointed out to Scorsese Sheeran’s story as good material for them to work together again back in 2010 and it is helpful to point out that in 2006 De Niro himself directed The Good Shepherd, a story of the first two decades of the CIA that has in common with The Irishman the same conspiratorial and elegiac tone and the same desire to combine public and private damnation.De Niro’s film is not exactly good, but it is a fascinating complement/contrast to Scorsese’s with its fascination with how Protestant ethics and the long ties of the American elite help to construct an official portrait of American society during the Cold War.De Niro’s film can be seen as an unofficial history of American official history and Scorsese as an official unofficial one. One a history of prestigious Wasp elites the other of immigrant criminality. Both conspiracy tales of how the Secret Service and Organized Crime each conspire in their own way to push the country in the same direction.
It is impossible to fail to notice the technological process given that it spreads through almost every one of The Irishman’s scenes. It is not a successful process, young De Niro come off as unbelievable as James Stewart making a young lawyer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.He looks eternalized in a hypermake-uped middle age regardless of whether he is playing 35 or 50 in a scene.The same goes for all other veteran actors.Body languages invariably denounce that we are seen men in their 70s and their presence overwhelms each scene with earlier film associations.In a curious decision by Scorsese with the exception of Harvey Keitel, almost all actors who play relevant mafia figures such as Ray Romano and Stephen Gagham are figures more associated with TV than cinema.Most younger actors seem more aware that they are playing historical dress-up while veterans benefit from coasting on their own images.The disconnect between them is pronounced.
The Irishman’s rejuvenation CGI does not lend dramatic truth to situations as much as it suggests its symbolic unrealism.We are in front of a ghost story much more than a traditional mob drama.Bodies embalmed by the “best Netflix’s money can buy” following actions om a pre-determined script.That De Niro is not a convincing young man is less a failure than a different meaning.They bring to the fore both the approaching death that looms over the film as they reinforce the conspiratorial logic organizing most of the action.De Niro’s Sheeran is at the same time a ghost and history’s secret agent employed whenever the conspiracy forces need a push to get the US to its destination in the 1980s.
The film has three distinct acts each dominated by one of its lead actors, the first by Joe Pesci’s mob boss who introduces Sheeran into the midst of organized crime and elicits from him the feeling of eternal loyalty, the second by Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa and at the last hour finally by De Niro whose performance is intentionally more recessive and whose confrontation of loyalties and subsequent regrets take over the final hour.Pesci and Pacino contribute very theatrical and physical performances that reinforce the different ways in which they dominate everyone around them (Jesse Plemmons has a very funny performance as Hoffa’s foster son as a weak near silent appendix of the father serving as background commentary troughout his scenes).When The Irishman finishes what is left is mostly Pesci’s gaze and Pacino’s oratory.
Out of dramatic and symbolic reasons the whole movie revolves around Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa.After all, if Frank Sheeran didn’t claim at the end of his life that he was the man who killed Hoffa, The Irishman wouldn’t even exist.’I Heard You Painted Houses’, the title of the original book that is clearly also Scorsese’s favorite who opens the film with it is uttered by Hoffa when he first meets Sheeran and the dramatic arc of the film moves towards his inevitable betrayal and murder just as the symbolic around Sheeran choosing capital over labor, as critic Caden Mark Gardner commented to me in a conversation weeks ago, Hoffa’s disappearance has great symbolic weight in the dismantling of the postwar American labor movement and The Irishman is well aware of this process.Scorsese has great interest in American mythology, but not especially in mystification, but the film goes very easy on Hoffa, a generally maligned figure.In this sense, it is interesting to note that since 2008’s economic crisis there’s been a surge of interest in unionization in the American left after decades of negative public perception of unions.If The Irishman is a mourning film, it’s also a mourning film about an American Labor that wasn’t, and Hoffa like Sheeran interests The Irishman less for who he was but for what he meant.
The film constantly alludes to the myths of the American mob between 1945 and 1980. There is the idea that the mob had helped elect John Kennedy and also later dissatisfied with the government’s treatment of them and his inability to recover Cuba would have taken part on his assassination.There is a very funny recurring black comedy joke in the movie in which minor mafia figures are introduced with a card detailing their future deaths and Joe Kennedy whose fortune start is linked to alcohol smuggling gets the same treatment.The Irishman suggests that the mob is always there an eminence of history (it is good to notice that the mob boss played by Pesci was famous in that world precisely for being very influential shadowy figure).A reactionary force ready to control the excesses of public life and expand the weight of capital.In this sense, it is also interesting to observe that the movie suspends its action for an interlude involving the figure of Crazy Joe Gallo for whom Sheeran also took credit for murdering.Gallo is one of the most fascinating figures of the American organized crime in the 1960s and 1970s known for questioning the stratified structure of the Italian mob for reproducing a European aristocratic logic that made little sense in the US and promoting racial integration in its business by hiring and developing partnerships with black criminals at a time when organized crime remained closed and racist.That The Irishman suggests that his main character was responsible for the deaths of the post war most progressive American gangster and the most famous union leader in less than four years period is very indicative of the film’s larger worldview.
The Irishman is less successful exactly when it tries to be more intimate.Frank Sheeran is more interesting as a secret agent of history than as an individual.Much like in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film foes soft when it tries to find some pathos in the damnation of its main character.These are the moments when its prestige film side betrays what it otherwise does best.The elegiac tone of the last half hour sounds like a false key. The idea of Sheeran dealing with the moral consequences of a life dedicated to crime remains overly written. There’s been a false controversy around the dramatic choice to use Anna Paquin’s daughter as a silent chorus of disapproval for her father’s life, The choice is effective on its own terms, but both attacks and defenses have little to say about how uninteresting those terms are.The use of Sheeran’s daughters to reprove their father have a threadbare effect suggesting more the limits of the film’s imagination despite good performances from Paquin and Marin Ireland. Those are pure Hollywood crocodile tears that slightly dilute the film’s cumulative effect for an idea of damnation that gives Sheeran more credit than he deserves.It is about bringing morality to a place it does not belong to.
The last act is most effective when dealing with death and power.The only time Sheeran’s drama resonates is when it revolves around the annihilation of his power.His physical limitations let him loose any hold he has on the world around him.All the power relations that were carefully drawn so far dissipate.The Irishman’s ghosts cease to be ghosts of history to become ghosts of memory.The movement from public to private is unbalanced.The Irishman in his last forty minutes erases all the rich world it has created so far and focuses on Robert De Niro’s fragile body.He is great in those moments, but one might wonder if the movie overloaded him by asking De Niro to hold the whole final action block by himself.
The Irishman is a very practical movie about death.Men are always there negotiating the violent fate of other men, and this sense is carried over to the final sequences.The moment De Niro describes Pesci’s character’s expiration has great strength.The idea of erasing of a 21st century memory that carries so little interest for the 20th also registers strong.The movie finds force when Sheeran seems to be negotiating his own funeral.All ghosts end in the grave. The Irishman accepts it resigned.