When you see a movie poster with names like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci on the acting roster, or Martin Scorsese directing from a script written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, it’s pretty crazy to think how difficult it was to actually get this movie made. It’s even wilder to consider that so many big-name Hollywood studios were scared off by the massive budget and doubted the film’s success with such veteran actors leading in place of younger, sexier stars from today’s movie scene. I mean, it’s Martin freaking Scorsese. This man has directed more classics and game-changing films in the last 50 years than most directors will ever aspire to. I’d say it’s pretty foreboding for the future of cinema that it took Netflix, this multi-billion dollar streaming service, to get this movie into production and out for our consumption rather than a more traditional studio going the usual theater-run route. Then again, if you’ve read my recent review on the new Star Wars movie, you might point out that I’m all too aware how concerned studios are with how much cash these movies rake in, not so much how movie lovers like me will appreciate them years from now, and you’d be right to do so.
In light of this, I’d say director Martin Scorsese’s frustration with franchise blockbusters taking away the theater experience from more thoughtful films like these is pretty well earned, and his remarks about Marvel movies last year came from a very real place considering the difficulties it took to finally bring this long-gestating passion project to life. But rather than argue what qualifies as true ‘cinema’ and what’s simply theme park entertainment, I’m here to talk about my most anticipated movie of 2019, one that I had heard was in the works years ago, maybe around 2016. All it took was for me to know that acting heavyweights Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were finally making another mob movie with the director who’s arguably the best at making them, and for the first time, fellow Italian Al Pacino was going to be a part of this history. I didn’t need to know the story, or who else was in the cast, or who was writing the screenplay, or how long the film was going to be. I was sold from day one, because Martin Scorsese is without a doubt one of my favorite directors. Even into his 70’s, the man shows a passion for his work and attention to detail and thematic material in every new movie he makes, even lesser ones like Hugo and The Aviator which seem somewhat inconsequential compared to his masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and his Oscar-winning The Departed. Even his works of fiction, or heavily revised history as in the case of Gangs of New York, feel very authentic and true-to-life because of the detail he puts into his sets and the perspective with which he shapes the characters. And coming off his 2016 faith-exploring epic Silence, one of his most profound and deeply moving films to date, I feel like, in a way, Scorsese has been putting off The Irishman subconsciously because he’s been waiting until he was prepared, as a creator and artist, to tackle a project of this scope and this sense of personal reflection.
That is to say, The Irishman is at once quite different from his previous gangster epics, even as its choice of leads begs comparison with Goodfellas and Casino especially. Where those films were more concerned with the flashiness of the lifestyle, and portraying wise guys as parts of a large community of people who look after each other, The Irishman looks back on a life of crime with a leering sense of regret and facing one’s own mortality. It’s a slower-paced, more laid back film, told with the sort of gravelly authority of an old man recounting his regrets and offering his words of warning. On the surface, the film explores the rise of one Frank Sheeran, a former soldier during WWII who makes his way as a truck driver until Russell Bufalino, the head of the Bufalino family near Philadelphia, takes him under his wing and grooms him for service. Eventually, Sheeran is tasked with being the bodyguard of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, and his loyalty to both Hoffa and Bufalino strains his relationship to each of them, as well as with his own family, until he has to make a choice that he’s forced to live with the rest of his life. I’ve seen numerous historians complaining about the historical accuracy of the film, particularly certain events in the third act, but Scorsese isn’t directing a documentary here. Like Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator, and even Raging Bull, he has a point to telling all these real-life stories the way he does. In this case, if a film like Goodfellas glamorizes how gangsters had all the money in the world and could do pretty much anything they wanted, The Irishman reveals the ugly other side of the coin in which a life of excess and materialism can leave you empty and hollow in the end. Frank Sheeran, with his own mob lawyers, appears to be able to get away with whatever he wants in this film, and he’s able to provide well for his family and keep them safe, but in the end, it’s the very same means by which he saw to all that which leaves him a hollowed-out shell of his former self.
So one could easily think, “Well, these people are killers and thieves, so they get what they deserve, right?” However, these characters are never so black-and-white. After all, they’re still people, and building off the themes from Goodfellas where gangsters are usually members of a society of families looking after each other, I think Scorsese empathizes with the fact that these gangsters think of themselves as doing the right thing, making the right choices, to help as many people as they can. Frank Sheeran is not portrayed as some trigger-happy murderer who indulges in the dirty work; as he himself describes it in the film, ‘it was like being in the army. You followed orders, you report back, and you got rewarded.’ Crime boss Russell Bufalino similarly isn’t some cold, remorseless villain, but rather imparts to Sheeran the importance of spending time with his family, and he’s there to help Sheeran out of a few jams, perhaps out of a sense of kinship, and warns his Teamsters partner Jimmy Hoffa multiple times about his handling of the organization, even as a friend, before reaching the ultimate conclusion. Scorsese seems to be saying that these were just regular people underneath, in a complicated political struggle where loyalty was hard to come by, and they each had to make decisions they were prepared to live with. He’s viewing them through the lens that they were just people, not criminals specifically, and because of that it becomes natural for the viewer to see them that way as well. This is a big reason why this movie works so well.
Like the rest of Scorsese’s modern films, and many of his earlier ones as well, The Irishman has the depth and detail to it to satisfy the most demanding of moviegoing audiences, while also being accessible enough for more casual viewers to enjoy. For it to be a three-and-a-half hour movie, I wouldn’t be remiss to expect Scorsese not to attempt to please everyone and make a well-rounded movie, and yet somehow he always does. It feels much shorter than it is, partially due to really tasteful editing that slows down for the more personal, reflective moments and picks up through the periods of exposition to advance the plot. It’s a movie that doesn’t feel the need to over-explain anything; Scorsese has faith that most people watching his movies are smart enough to pick up on his themes for themselves, and develop empathy for these characters without being forced to. Thus, despite the massive length of the movie, I can’t think of any moment that feels wasted or that it went on for too long. The pieces are all there to build the landscape of history, scheming, and relationships around the three central characters, who remain at the forefront of the movie’s focus. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, and credit where credit is due, writer Steven Zaillian is not exactly a stranger to making emotional epics like this one run like well-oiled machines (see: Schindler’s List).
On a purely technical level, The Irishman exemplifies all of Martin Scorsese’s traits and ambitions as a filmmaker come into focus once more. The use of narration for exposition, the attention to detail in recreating 1950’s and 1960’s urban America, the expert camerawork, the realistic dialogue, the use of sound and music, or lack thereof, to create and release tension, the willingness to use restraint to let his scenes breathe and his characters really feel alive. These are all things I’ve come to expect going into his movies, and they’re why a film like The Irishman is so refreshing after a year of overhyped blockbusters and cultural and political statements distracting people away from truly compelling storytelling. This time, however, Scorsese has given into innovation to help sell this story, similar to how Hugo in 2011 became his first movie shot digitally rather than on film. The de-aging technology, used primarily on De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, has been one of the most-talked about aspects of the movie, and I don’t have much to say about it aside from that it’s used sparingly enough so that you only really notice it when it first appears early on in the film. It’s not a focal point of the movie, and I don’t think Scorsese meant for it to be anything more than a preferable alternative to hiring young actors to play the same roles at a younger age, an alternative that would’ve undoubtedly cost the studio less money, but ultimately, I think, would’ve made the characters harder to relate to. Seeing Robert De Niro play the same Frank Sheeran through 50 years of the man’s life, well, it just reads like you’re really watching the same person grow old and come to accept what his life has done to him, and that has the more profound effect which I think Scorsese was really going for.
The Irishman is the kind of movie that just doesn’t get made very often anymore. It isn’t concerned with making all its money back, it’s not trying to make a bold, perhaps controversial social statement, it doesn’t live in the shadow of movies from decades past, and it isn’t hurrying along at a breakneck pace with young, sexy stars delivering meta-one liners for you to repost on your Instagram account. It’s a meditative film with respect for its audience and a message for them to digest over time and hold onto as they grow older. And it may well be the last crime saga we’ll ever get with these names attached to it, which is cause enough to celebrate its existence, were it not also a brilliant movie in its own right. Personally, I believe time validates art, and as such it’s far too soon to consider The Irishman to be a true classic (the term ‘instant classic’ is just nonsense), and I wouldn’t yet call it a masterpiece, even though that word has lost all its meaning in the last decade, but I do think The Irishman is one of the most significant films to come out of 2019, and from Netflix’s filmography in general. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a full-course meal, one that leaves you satisfied, fulfilled, and better for having partaken in it, even if it doesn’t have the happiest of endings. The Irishman is one of the best movies of 2019, and I’m glad to see it got plenty of attention in this year’s Oscar nominations. Whatever it wins or doesn’t win, however, it’s well worth seeing for anyone who still hasn’t.