In Defense of The Irishman

Before we’re finished talking about the films of 2019, I have to weigh in on The Irishman.  If you read its reviews you’d think it was very well-received, but I’ve heard so many friends casually write it off as a sad rehash of films Martin Scorsese made thirty years ago, I feel like I must speak up.

I saw it more than twice, and I loved it because it is so sad – and I confess that I could have done without the framing device of Frank Sheeran’s nursing home memories. I often feel these devices are superfluous, but in this case the story itself is cutting back and forth from the 1950s, when the eponymous Irishman rises through the mafia, to the 1970s when he carries out his biggest hit. So to show him remembering remembering is just too much, and yet…

At its heart, The Irishman is a simple story. Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) accepts an assignment from his mentor, mafia boss Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), to become the right hand man of labor leader Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa). On a road trip with Pesci in all his 1970s Italian-American glory, he gets his orders: he’s going to have to kill Pacino. So simple, and so sad, since he’s naturally developed some feelings for Pacino in all the years they shared hotel rooms and time with each other’s families.

I was an enthusiastic fan of Scorsese’s take on superhero movies published this year. It’s ironic that the movie he was releasing while he published it was one of his least cinematic. Slow and talky, and at times underwhelming in its creation of period atmosphere, it didn’t bother me at all that it lacked spectacle, and felt more like a TV series. I particularly liked hearing Pacino as Hoffa doing a superb Midwestern accent.

It also comes up with an ingenious way of putting a female character at the heart of a mafia story. While I’m sympathetic to the post-#metoo constant questioning of the onanistic male-centeredness of movie plots that get wide circulation, holding Scorsese to that standard is a little like holding Titus Andronicus to it. If your heart doesn’t melt watching Pesci break the news to De Niro that he’s going to have to kill his friend, over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s, no less – of course they’re the first ones awake, and that breakfast table is a space no woman would ever be seated at  – then your political agenda has gotten in the way of your capacity to feel.

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Daughter of a Hitman: Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

In The Irishman, it’s Pacino who’s accessible to women, in particular to De Niro’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina when she’s young and Anna Paquin as an adult. It provides the major emotional arc of the movie. While the gangster Pesci’s ham-handed attempts to win his friend’s daughter’s affection go nowhere – in fact, terrify the girl – Pacino the family man makes it look easy.

So when De Niro finally gets the assignment to kill Pacino, it’s not just a crooked union boss he’s killing, it’s the guy his own daughter worships. Who made her a true believer in the labor movement. And who danced with her at family weddings without being gross about it. At the breakfast table at the Howard Johnson’s, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, but in the wider world we have some standards to uphold, some lines never to cross, and it’s a woman who delivers that message.

Beatrice Loayza  writes in The Guardian: “Within these boundaries, Peggy is disconcertingly diminished: Paquin speaks six words in a movie that clocks in at three-and-a-half hours. There may be a potency to such intentional restraint within the film’s elegiac trappings, yet circumscribing Peggy as Frank’s moral conscience remains doggedly frustrating. Is she more of a symbol than an actual person?”

It’s a fair question! The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian based on a book by Charles Brandt, and I suppose Zaillian could have written a larger plot about the family into that three-plus hours, and it would have been even better. (Like I say, I could have done without the nursing home entirely; without it, it’s essentially a procedural with flashbacks, both of them damn good.)

As it is, The Irishman is a return to one of Scorses’s favorite themes, about the dead end of masculinity. Like Raging Bull, he creates men who are effective in the wider world, which makes them too brutal for their own homes. Scorsese, at age 77, portrays Sheeran as a sad old man, literally sitting with the choices he made. He may have touched more of us a generation behind him if instead he’d fleshed out the ways Sheeran became repulsive to his family. I suppose we’ll appreciate this film more in 20 to 40 years.

Comments

  1. I realize that this a simple, and probably unpopular, view, but I couldn’t care less about any of the people this film is about. Maybe I even feel nothing beyond contempt for them. Not looking at meta meaning, but on a surface level, those people just aren’t worth my time.

    • S.G.S., Thanks for writing. You are not alone in that feeling about this film – and many mafia movies. That could be Scorsese getting lazy, not taking the time to win people over the way he might have in his second or third mafia film. I saw the four of them packing the car up, and the wives along, one of them just wanting to smoke, and I instantly liked these people. They were going through something together, starting a journey they had mixed feelings about, and that felt very familiar. What’s more, they felt like people I knew around me in an Italian-American suburb of Trenton in the 1970s.

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