The Irishman

The Irishman (2019) Netflix, directed by Martin Scorsese, with Al Pacino (James Hoffa), Robert DeNiro (Frank Sheeran) and Joe Pesci (Russel Bufalino)

Review by Allan L Branson

The American gangster is an iconic symbol. Whether we are talking about the imported La Cosa Nostra or the home-grown criminals like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde or Machine Gun Kelly the American gangster is often seen as a sort of noble outlaw. The American gangster is not La Cosa Nostra, Yakuza or the Triads. They represent “organized crime,” whose nascent beginnings were based on protection groups, saving peasants from tyrannical feudal landlords. 

Other cultures saw a similar paradigm. The Yakuza descended from Samurai, the Triads from Shaolin and the Mafia/La Cosa Nostra (“this thing of ours”) from the “Black Hand”. All of these groups were formed to protect the common man, the powerless, the vulnerable from provincial rulers who often took whatever they wanted from farmers and their families. The term “mafia” supposedly evolved from the cries of a mother finding her daughter raped by one of the feudal lord’s men, then screaming, ma fiameaning “my daughter. This set in motion all able-bodied men to take up arms in secret and seek their own protection and justice against the rich and powerful established government. 

Similarly, this great need for protection against feudal lords was never needed so much as during the Industrial age when robber barons and the great captains of American industry fought against unions and workers’ rights. 

In 1957, enter Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), national president for IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters). No one exemplified the power of unions in America more than James Riddle Hoffa. Controlling unions is to control American commerce because factory workers, dock workers, garment industry, sanitation and construction workers are essential for services and goods. One could effectively argue that his position was more powerful than the president of the United States. Apropos to that fact Hoffa was relentlessly pursued by POTUS’s brother, the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This in turn led to several plans as to how to kill “Bobby.” The book and movie suggest that in the end they settled on JFK. So, when Hoffa mysteriously disappeared years later people suspected it undoubtedly was a result of his irrefutable organized crime connections. What was not clear was who, how and why. I can recall riding on the highway and seeing the popular bumper sticker inquiring, “Where’s Hoffa?”

The Irishmanis based upon the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. The term “paint houses” is similar to “wet work,” a not so subtle code for murder. As the story unfolds after a chance meeting on the highway outside of Philadelphia, a broken down truck operated by Frank Sheeran (DeNiro) at a roadside stop, meets Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) an organized crime boss, known for his resolute obedience to omerta(code of silence). Sheeran years later under uncomfortable circumstances meets Bufalino again, this time with Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno. 

After being ordered to kill numerous enemy soldiers during WWII, essentially the work of a death squad, Frank Sheeran became numb. Eager for work to raise his nascent family, he found that particular skill set financially beneficial. There is a distinction between murder for hire and murder as a favor, for such are the nuanced distinctions when one becomes an associate with the mob. After several years of being firmly ensconced with organized crime members and Hoffa specifically, Frank Sheeran is told that he must silence his mentor and now longtime friend Jimmy Hoffa.

The acting is solid, notably Joe Pesci plays a powerful understated role as an “old school” crime boss, DeNiro is equally strong as his Irish mob associate. DeNiro plays a formidable mobster regardless of the culture – think Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Casinoand now Frank Sheeran. Pacino of course has shown us his gangster chops in the all-time classic, The Godfather. Oddly enough however despite both Pacino and DeNiro having been in that film’s first and second iteration (as well as in Michael Mann’s HeatThe Irishman was Pacino’s first movie working with famed director Martin Scorsese. Additionally, who wouldn’t pay to see these notable gangster actors in a film together. This film is one we’ve hungered for due in part to the fact that director Martin Scorsese has made it. From Mean StreetsWise GuysCasino to The Departed, Scorsese has shown himself to be without equal within this genre, always leaving us hungering for more. And a not so subtle message about the wages of criminal behavior. The good news is this film is available for home viewing, streaming now on Netflix, do enjoy it, how could you not? Cheers!