“The Irishman” Movie Review

the irishman - publicity still - h 2019

     Of all the filmmakers in Hollywood, the last one I thought would ever make a film for Netflix was the legendary Martin Scorsese.  Especially after his recent comments about Marvel films being nothing more than “theme park rides”, while also lambasting theater owners for not programming more narrative films.  But I’m presuming the deeper pockets won out, so here we are.  Scorsese’s “The Irishman”, a three and a half hour opus chronicling the career of real life hitman and Teamster boss Frank Sheeran, arrived on the streamer November 27th after a short platform run in theaters for awards qualification.  While it’s a disappointment not having the opportunity to see “The Irishman” on the big screen where it belongs, the film proves to be  another masterpiece from a storyteller who has made a career creating them.  And given the subject matter and actors involved, “The Irishman” plays like a swan song meant to invoke the audience’s recollection of the director’s greatest films.

     Based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt and adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, “The Irishman” features Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in a life story spanning over four decades.  Utilizing de-aging technology from Industrial Light and Magic, Scorsese is able to begin the film during Frank’s early days as a World War II veteran turned truck driver with De Niro playing the role, rather than casting that part of the role to a younger actor.  In fact, with CGI and makeup effects at his disposal, Scorsese has all of his lead actors play their roles for the entirety of the film.  It’s an amazing piece of film wizardry within a story where you wouldn’t expect to see it, and for the most part the experience is seamless.

     We follow Frank (De Niro) as he begins scamming his Philadelphia area employer to make extra money for his family.  This leads to an intro with Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) and the opportunity to prove his worth for the first time in front of the powerful Bufalino family, a notorious Italian-American crime syndicate in Northeastern Pennsylvania throughout the 1960s and 70s.  Soon he finds himself front and center before Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), who appreciate his loyalty and look to enhance his role within their organization.  But the jobs he’s assigned no longer require intricate cons, but rather his surgical ability to kill people of whom the family wants dead for business reasons.  But the clincher here isn’t necessarily the standard mob antics, as we soon learn of the family’s power within the Teamsters union and the methods they employ to exploit the substantial amount of cash the organization generates and oversees.

     As one of the key masterminds behind the operation, Russell dispatches Frank to meet with the Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  The directive is to befriend Jimmy and act as a sort of go between for Russell to utilize when it comes to union matters.  Frank’s allegiance is to Russell and the Bufalino family, but he also becomes close friends with Jimmy to the point where their families interact socially and Frank travels everywhere Jimmy goes as both muscle and to smooth over confrontations the hot headed union boss seems to find himself in with people whose interests also cross the line between crime and official union business.  The story, which is narrated by Frank at an advanced age during scenes that frame the entire film, moves through a number of important points in history including Bobby Kennedy’s investigation of organized crime within the Teamsters union, the ongoing crisis in Cuba, and the assassination of President John Kennedy which some believe may actually have been orchestrated by the mob in order to silence several ongoing investigations.

     All of this remains centered around the age old question of who killed Jimmy Hoffa?  The author of the book the film is based on, Charles Brandt, details the confession he received from Frank Sheeran when he sat down with him in 2003 just prior to his death.  It is that account which is portrayed in “The Irishman’ and remains one of many theories as to where the famed union leader suddenly vanished to in July, 1975.  And that is just one of several revelations the film covers during its lengthy running time with numerous unsolved mob murders, money schemes, and illegal back room deals being brought to life through Scorsese’s brilliant and entertaining visual style.

     The ensemble Scorsese has assembled is one of the best of the year.  In addition to the top billed cast, there a number of standout performers who provide important supporting roles during key scenes including Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, the family’s lawyer; Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s oldest daughter; Stephen Graham as Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a union boss and made guy who clashes with Jimmy Hoffa; and Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s foster son.  Pesci may have delivered the most calming performance of his career, while Pacino is perfect for the ranting and loud Jimmy Hoffa, but De Niro proves yet again why he is the best actor of his generation, providing a nuanced take on the Frank Sheeran character that proves both compassionate and scary at the same time.  The work by these actors will no doubt be remembered come awards season.

     What will be interesting is to see if “The Irishman” succeeds in places where last year’s Netflix entry “Roma” did not.  It’s no secret a large part of the Hollywood community prefers the traditional method of releasing a film in theaters for several months before viewers can begin to enjoy the film at home.  But the paradigm seems to be changing amongst those who consume movies and streamers such as Netflix are taking notice, bringing high end awards caliber content to their platforms with every intention of competing for Oscar gold.  If that is something the Academy can accept, I would expect “The Irishman” to not only receive the lion’s share of nominations, but it also may take home the biggest prize of all.  This, while also bringing forth a well earned reminder of the masterful careers Scorsese, De Niro, and Pacino have had over the last 50 years.  GRADE: A