Whatever the arguments regarding the role of Netflix in modern cinema, we can thank its existence for affording Martin Scorsese the opportunity to make long-time passion project The Irishman. Spanning a 60-year period of time, with various era-appropriate period details, employing several Hollywood legends, and utilising cutting-edge ageing and de-ageing techniques on the three main leads, the budget for this 209 minutes film is reputed to have been around the $159 million mark. By traditional studio economics funding such a project would be – and was, for Paramount Pictures initially – a marginal call, at best. With the book on which the film is based, 2004’s I Heard You Paint Houses – a work by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defence attorney Charles Brandt – having been optioned in 2007, the road to the screen has been tortuous. When we consider that (according to IMDB) Martin Scorsese is 77, Robert De Niro 76, Al Pacino 79 and Joe Pesci 76, it is not clear how long we may have such talents both active and in the sort of form they displayed in their heydays.
The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a real-life mob figure, who begins the film near the end of his life in a nursing home. For context, Frank died in 2003, so we can take this as the early 2000s. Recounting his story to an unseen guest, we begin in what appears to be the 1970s, Frank is taking ageing Mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci) to Detroit, along with their wives. As they make their journey they pass landmarks that prompt memories such as their first meeting. This takes us back to the 1950s, where Frank is a driver delivering meat in 1950s Philadelphia. As his van breaks down one day, he meets Russell in a road-side Texaco garage. As the two men bond, Russell remembers Frank, and is able to call on him later as a friend, and for illicit work. Prior to this, as a then 30-something husband and father, Frank begins to boost his income by selling some of the contents of his deliveries to a local gangster. After his arrest for theft, Frank displays loyalty by refusing to name any accomplices. With his union lawyer being the cousin of Russell, Sheeran begins to do jobs for the mob boss, including murder. Introduced by Bufalino to Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), Sheeran begins to work for the union man, acting as a bodyguard when Hoffa is travelling.
From there we take a tour through the 50s, 60s and 70s as we see the Teamsters links to organised crime, and the role of the latter in ensuring the election of JFK. With the new President appointing his brother, Bobby, as Attorney General, we see Hoffa under immediate pressure from the Federal legal system as well as seeing his position with the Teamsters under threat from Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham).
Released in the early-70s, with a pardon from President Richard Nixon, Hoffa fights to retake his position with the union, while showing increasing disrespect for other leaders and the aligned crime families. From there the film postulates a possible explanation for the real life disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, as well as depicting Sheeran’s failing relationships with his family, as his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) disavows him and his criminal activities. The film’s final act depicts the fading of this now-lonely man, over his final years.
In watching The Irishman, the similarities with Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas – as well as the differences – couldn’t be clearer. In that film, we had a then 47 year old director presenting the story of Henry Hill from his early teenage years through to his entry into the witness protection system in 1980. Given Hill was born in 1943, this suggests that we view him through to the age of around 37 – his story was far from complete. Here we have a director in his late-70s telling a story from the perspective of an elderly man, looking back on his life, in its totality. Superficially the two films are very similar: heavy use of narration, freeze frames, long tracking shots, period music, occasional fourth wall breaking, black humour, and a story that uses a small-scale story to look at the underbelly of America through the second half of the 20th Century. Here, the implications are even more serious, as, effectively, mob money installs one of the United States’ most famous and celebrated presidents. We learn that, at one point, Jimmy Hoffa – a man later to be convicted for witness tampering – is the second most popular man in America.
The energy of the two films is very different, given the perspectives of filmmaker and lead character. Goodfellas sees a man bred into illegally gained privilege from childhood, and learning to take – as his right – crime, infidelity and drug taking. Frank, by contrast, comes to the life in his 30s, and, although he does leave his wife for another woman, there is far less of a sense of his living the high life. This is a man slowly twisted, rather than dropped into the glitz and glamour perceived by the child Henry Hill. It is more a film about the pain resulting from choices taken through life. Where Henry has to learn that his life was effectively a sham – an illusion – but manages to emerge with his family intact, Frank has to bear the effect of his decisions on his closest relationships. We leave Henry before middle age. With Frank (and Russell) we get to see the full aftermath of the ending of their ill-gotten lifestyles. Age and infirmity comes to the most powerful, with Frank’s story becoming a curiosity with which to pass the time with visitors. Their era has passed, and for all the power displayed in their reigns on the streets, they will fail and fade, with nothing, not even family, lasting forever.
On a technical level, the ageing and de-ageing techniques – when viewed on the small screen at home – are flawless. We see short flashbacks to World War II (key to explaining our lead’s developing a coldness towards killing), where Frank is in his early-20s, through to his early-80s. At all times the actors have worked to move in a way consistent with the age of the men they are portraying. From young, fit and vibrant, Pesci and De Niro, in particular, essay the decay of getting old and losing vitality. With beautiful and detailed period work, accompanied by Scorsese’s signature – for his crime dramas – varied and era-appropriate soundtrack, this is A-list Hollywood filmmaking at its most accomplished and lavish.
Watching The Irishman, it was impossible not to feel deeply privileged. With the key players at such late stages of their career, boasting the kind of budget that such a project would struggle to attract without the intervention of Netflix, and with Pacino and De Niro having lacked lead roles in such a prestige entry since, perhaps, Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995, it is fair to say that such a career highlight for all involved could not have been expected in 2019. Where Scorsese created one of the films of the 1970s in Taxi Driver, one of the best of the 1980s, with Raging Bull, and, arguably, the best film of the 1990s, with Goodfellas, he has now produced a late contender for one of the best films of this decade. A marvel of pacing (wearing its marathon running time very well indeed), storytelling, and exceptional acting performances, The Irishman sees a group of the finest talents Hollywood has ever produced absolutely at the top of their games, years after we may have thought such days were over. A masterpiece.