They Are All Equal Now: The Irishman’s Epic of Sadness

By Robert Koehler

Since cinema is moving toward television, and since the MCU generation is trying to actually tussle with a good fella like Martin Scorsese, and since all of this is wrapped around a cultural moment steeped in glorious contradictions, the timing of The Irishman couldn’t be more perfect. A movie that embodies classical values of saga storytelling and reflective character study and shatters the frenetic machismo of Scorsese’s previous gangland epics—particularly his marvellous, unruly masterpiece, Casino (1995), and Goodfellas (1990)—The Irishman is both cinema and television in a fused form that suggests an artistic reconciliation for Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian. Funded by Netflix to the tune of something approaching the thin-air atmosphere of $200 million after all the studios passed (thanks to an expensive digital de-aging process for older actors playing their characters’ younger selves), the project wouldn’t exist without the advent of streaming TV and Netflix’s sprawling presence—and its elastic ability to produce and present longform narratives. And yet The Irishman doesn’t play by the rules of longform and the conventions of episodic structure, a phenomenon that used to be contained to the network and cable cultural ghetto but is now in the beginning phases of colonizing viewers’ minds in global ways we’ve barely begun to understand. Scorsese’s and Zaillian’s work must be measured by the storytelling form and length of The Leopard (1963), and of the ’60s roadshow epics like Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but with the intimacy and political acumen of Stroheim, especially what we know of Greed (1924), and most profoundly of all, the overwhelming sadness of the movie’s greatest influence, Barry Lyndon (1975). The small screen and large screen together, the close-up and the landscape canvas, the montage of the saga and of the continuous sequence of action: The Irishman represents Scorsese’s, and certainly Zaillian’s, most ambitious and nearly impossible project, appearing just as cinema is about to transform into something entirely different.

And since we’re also in the era of the fattest liar who ever sat in the Oval Office (a once-respected place that’s an important locus for much of the movie’s middle-section anger and energy), it’s all too timely that the movie is itself based on what is almost surely a myth, charitably viewed as a tall tale and more darkly as an outright lie: Charles Brandt’s supposed “as remembered by” book, I Heard You Paint Houses, wherein Brandt relates the purported “true” memoir of Jimmy Hoffa associate and Teamster loyalist Frank Sheeran. Sheeran claims that he was the guy who killed Hoffa, whose disappearance remains, next to the JFK assassination, the greatest unsolved case in American history. In his meticulous September 26 essay in the New York Review of Books, legal scholar Jack Goldsmith (stepson of “Chuckie” O’Brien, who drove the car that picked up Hoffa before his apparent killing but was kept in the dark about the plot) dismantles the Brandt book like a blindfolded Marine taking apart his weapon, and references several sources who say that Sheeran didn’t have what it took to be a hitman. Even the book’s titular phrase, which flashes onscreen in Godardian style in the movie’s early moments, is brought into severe doubt: Goldsmith cites insider sources who say that they never heard such a turn of phrase, while allowing for the funky lingo used by Sheeran’s fellow Philly-based Teamster pals. There’s also this: Goldsmith, fixed in the fact-based worlds of the law and journalism, and writing his essay before being able to watch The Irishman, hopes that the movie won’t play into the book’s web of mythology. He hopes that it may expand on the themes of the American labour movement’s rise and fall, La Cosa Nostra’s century-long control of the nation’s underground economy, and the US government’s failure to subdue mob and union criminality, its excessive overreach in the name of “law and order,” and how the toxic relationship of Hoffa and the mob provided the conditions for the labour movement’s self-destruction. 

You can read Goldsmith’s words and see that he hopes that Scorsese will, in his view, be true to history and build upon it, and that he also doubts those hopes will be fulfilled; that Hollywood, like it always does, will fuck it up. I don’t know what Goldsmith thinks of the movie, but true to Scorsese’s fundamental principles of creating a cinema of roiling disturbances with wild roaming ids who trigger havoc, and based in an abiding certainty of human failure, The Irishman obeys publisher Maxwell Scott’s line when he tells James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard why he won’t print the true story of the Liberty Valance killing: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The true story of Frank Sheeran is most likely boring, dull, and stupid, filled with Teamster meetings, trucker confabs, exchanges of cash in hotels and offices, a lot of paperwork, and a ton of screw-ups. The Frank Sheeran in Frank Sheeran’s mind, the one that seduced Brandt into writing his now widely dismissed and ridiculed book, is Scorsese and Zaillian’s animating interest, and this mind desires to be a different guy than the one he knows that he was, something more than a Hoffa loyalist: an enforcer you could trust with your life. 

This is why the opening scene is most interesting not for the long tracking shot through a senior citizens’ rest home, but for what’s at the end of it: Frank (Robert De Niro) sitting in a wheelchair, alone in a common area with nobody watching and listening to him except the camera; he looks straight ahead and begins to talk. Nobody’s there but Frank, and the movie that we are about to see is in his own head. The trick here is that the viewer is led along the path to possibly believe his tale, especially as told with De Niro’s charming, hesitant, crude, gravelly delivery, which winds back to when he met powerful Philly mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) during a chance encounter at a roadside Pennsylvania gas station. Quick to realize who Russell is, and sensing a man with connections to help him rise out of his lowly job as a meat trucker, Frank knows enough to juice up his resume and tell him how he murdered two Nazis in Italy after forcing them to dig their own graves. Yeah, I’m that tough. Does Russell believe it? We don’t, and it’s the movie’s cue for the viewer to reframe Frank as an unreliable narrator—a different viewer-narrator relationship than that of Casino (also narrated by De Niro, as Sam Rothstein). Russell’s eyes glint at Frank’s bullshit war story, quietly realizing that the guy has the balls to lie to his face and thinks he can get away with it, thinks that this is just what Russell wants to hear, and knows that, yeah, this is exactly what he wants to hear. 

This Russell, the one in Frank’s mind, the tough guy impressed by what another tough guy might do—a war crime—becomes across the movie’s nearly three-and-a-half hours one of the most fascinating characters in Scorsese’s rogues’ gallery, and in his cool mien, a world away from Pesci’s previous Scorsese characters, men with no internal governor. Russell always knows what’s going on, what he needs, how to get it, and who to get it from. He drops in and out of Frank’s story, in which Frank is the star (as we all are of our own stories), but each time Russell sits down with Frank to discuss business, Russell dominates and the scenes carry the weight of a meeting with the pope or a president. The fascinating and often funny first third involves Russell grooming Frank for the world of labour muscle, either by gun or cleverer methods, and these meetings set the tone of the movie’s greatness, as a chain of colloquies between a mentor and mentee discussing grave business, flexing real power.

Yet this is only, like the first movement in Beethoven’s Ninth, a prelude. Russell introduces Frank to Hoffa (Al Pacino), the second most powerful man in America in the ’50s and ’60s, the undisputed and feared leader of the Teamsters. How powerful? The movie depicts with an easy throwaway how the mob and the union loaded up the vote in Illinois to get JFK elected in 1960, with the expectation of favours returned. But the ultimate quid pro quo never came, and Hoffa’s outrage fuels the middle section of The Irishman with the obsessive gigantism of Ahab seeking the Great White Whale, with Frank pulled along in its wake. This is a dramatic challenge for Zaillian. Unlike the intimate, seductive, and powerful confabs with Russell, Frank’s dealings with Hoffa force him as the central character to react to this larger-than-life force and figure out how he can manoeuvre around him and satisfy the man’s impossible rages, discontents, and demands. (Little Al Pacino, a stocky raging bull, is some kind of hilariously monstrous force of nature in the greatest performance of his career.) Reactive heroes aren’t ideal, a dilemma typical of heroes in picaresque tales like Barry Lyndon. The crafty dramatic solution appears in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, when Frank just ups and walks out of a meeting in which Hoffa is spewing a string of foul insults at his staff—the movie makes the audience think of Trump during these moments—and tells Hoffa he won’t stand for it. Frank shows his character, his limits for abuse, his need for respect. Frank, this self-imagined brutal killer whose hits exude the efficient dispatch of jobs done by Alain Delon under the direction of Jean-Pierre Melville, becomes a sympathetic working stiff who’s not about to take another minute of shit from the boss.

Little do we realize this is actually a sneaky foreshadowing of the movie’s stunning climax, one of the most complex yet direct continuous sequences of action in movie history. Zaillian (and most likely Scorsese, in concert with his abiding editor Thelma Schoonmaker) structures The Irishman along three tracks of time that wind in and out of each other. First is Frank sitting in his wheelchair, talking. Second is the chronological course of his rise and fall through the decades alongside Russell and Hoffa. But the third one, that’s the kicker: Frank and Russell are seen going on a long road trip with their wives, down the turnpikes and byways from Philly to Dee-troit, as they say it. It’s not at all clear what this is unless you’ve read Brandt’s book, but it emerges as a journey with a fateful conclusion. This road trip, winding through the movie at first like a distraction and then a growing threat, is Russell’s final dark act with Frank as his willing collaborator. The journey’s turning point happens in the most suitable place for a movie fascinated by the banality of evil: a Howard Johnson’s motel coffee shop, where Russell announces to Frank over bowls of Total cereal that he must commit the deed. Frank’s too close to Hoffa, his tight right-hand man, so close that nobody else could really do it, nobody else who could make Hoffa feel comfortable. This is of course Frank’s own tall tale explaining how he killed Hoffa, but it works inside the movie’s dramatic logic because of the patiently designed Russell-Frank relationship, arriving at the inexorable point at which Frank must choose between his two masters.

Yet another gigantic continuous sequence of action precedes this, a sprawling party honouring Frank as Teamster Man of the Year, a late-era Rat Pack-esque bash that brings everyone in the movie together for one last whoop-de-doo, including Frank’s wise daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who, having witnessed her father’s excessive cruelty from an early age, now, as a grown woman, observes him with chilly, silent contempt, a spectre haunting him to the grave. This evening is where the ground is laid for what comes next, a series of dialogues between the men determining that Hoffa is a doomed man, that, in Russell’s immortal phrase, “It’s what it is.” This single line, as precise and durable as the best lines in Casablanca (1942), is where the movie has been going for the past three hours, and Pesci’s calm delivery of it has the finality of a dropping curtain.

The sadness at the centre of The Irishman emerges in the final sections, a culmination that precisely echoes the developments in Barry Lyndon, in which a young Irishman climbs the ladders of fortune, violence, and historical events to reach a pinnacle of success, which preceeds the utter collapse of his family and his own internal destruction. This doesn’t lead to death, but slow-motion dissolution and physical breakdown: Redmond Barry ends up penniless and with one leg; Frank ends up without friends or family in a wheelchair, only his feverishly inflated memories (and periodic visits from his nurse and priest) keeping him company. He sits in prison with a decrepit old Russell, toothless, hands shaking, hunched over, an empty shell of his former titanic self, or takes Communion with his priest in the old folks’ home, and it’s all part of a humble requiem more spiritual than all of the strained religiosity Terrence Malick squeezes out of every frame of his lumbering epics. Barry Lyndon’s final phrase echoes here, as Frank sits alone in his room, no longer talking, exhausted, done for the day: “They are all equal now.”