The Irishman: How Giants Confront Mortality

On a snowy day in the woods of present day Austria in AD 180, Maximus rallied his troops before the final battle and shouted, ”What we do in life, echoes in eternity!” The battle ensued and Maximus’ men came out triumphant. This happened in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000. Meanwhile, nineteen years later, Martin Scorsese closes the second decade of this century with a much gloomier statement. One could narrow it down to, ”What we do in life is final.”

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A dying hitman is our introduction to America’s history.

With a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese has grown into a filmmaker whose movies tend to define specific time periods and speak for entire generations. Although set in different times and places, movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull became the epitome of the societal turmoil of the 70s and 80s, while Goodfellas and The Departed redefined the cinema of the 90s and mid 2000s by specifically reformulating the genre of gangster films and thrillers, giving audiences a reason to keep believing in a type of filmmaking that seemed on the verge of destruction on behalf of the Hollywood machine. If there was a cinematic mind who could bring us an epic the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and still find a way to keep audiences engaged, it’s Martin Scorsese.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses which served as a memoir for union teamster turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman was always meant to be made into a full-scale epic as its story spanned almost half a century and covered major historical milestones such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination, Italian-American Civil Rights League movement, the McClellan hearings and finally, Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975. And as monumental and grand the scale of this project turned out to be, Scorsese’s latest vehicle is an extremely personal piece of work, specifically in the way it goes about tackling the theme of mortality, a theme that is used to set the film apart from the director’s other ventures into the genre such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.

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Scorsese captures the turmoil of the 60s and 70s.

”He couldn’t finish [explaining the character of Frank Sheeran]. He was too emotionally involved,” said Scorsese in a recent panel talk at the AFI Fest 2019, when retelling the story of how De Niro first approached him with the idea for a new collaborative project.  Scorsese continued, ”That’s when I realized… maybe this is where we have to go. Maybe this gives us the opportunity to make another picture not in the same vein. Maybe we could find depth in this.” Finally, the director concluded this explanation with a key sentence, ”What is it? It turns out it’s us… life.”
Life goes by fast. In Hollywood especially. Life is also fragile. Scorsese would know best. This is the same man who almost went mad after New York, New York turned out to be the flop of the year in 1977, who was rumored to have threatened a producer with a gun when Taxi Driver had been initially X-rated, who was targeted by the Catholic Church and other religious groups after the release of the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ, who abused drugs to the point he ended up in a hospital before De Niro gave him a book that saved his life and inspired him to make one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema, Raging Bull.
At 77 years of age and with almost 40 directorial efforts behind his belt including feature films and documentaries, The Irishman is not just another number in the Italian-American director’s vast filmography. This is a chapter, a chapter that Scorsese along with his long-time friends, friends from way back, from teenage years spent in Little Italy and Queens, including De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Keitel and others, decided to write together. A last ride? Perhaps not. Certainly it is a collaboration that when looked at from the perspective of these aging stars takes on a whole new form.

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Pesci plays the quiet mob boss, Russell Bufalino, to perfection.

In The Irishman, we witness the rise of a WWII veteran from truck driver to mafia hitman and finally, to personal friend and bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa. We witness America change, we witness a nation in turmoil go through happy times and times of bloodshed, widespread distrust and panic.
But this passage of time is not as colorful and cool as the one we experience in Goodfellas, when we get to hang out with Henry Hill and the gang, and see them grow in rank, rob banks, have romances and eventually, from to time, get to kill somebody. It is also not as glamorous and dynamic as the passage of time seen in Casino, when it seems like there is no end to Ace Rothstein’s success in the city of dreams, Las Vegas. While yes, in both films our protagonists meet their end in a rather sobering fashion, with Hill getting to spend the rest of his life in some remote part of the country under the witness protection program, and Ace having most of his estate taken away by the authorities, The Irishman refuses to fall into the rise-and-fall scenario throughout its entire lengthy run-time.
The rise of I spoke of earlier in this paragraph is a slow and quite dreadful one. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is a strong-arm, a heavy-set man with blue eyes, wide shoulders and an imposing figure. He’s strong enough to carry hindquarters and change tires. The one feature that makes him stand out in mobster Russell Bufalino’s eyes (Joe Pesci is back, baby! And better than ever) is his obedience to orders. When you tell Frank what to do, you can bet your ass he’s going to see it through. He’s a man who goes through the motions and despite stating in his introduction as an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life, ”I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more,” Frank finds himself victim of a system, a system that is much larger and much more powerful than a single man. Once he is sucked into the underworld of Philadelphia and starts carrying out the orders on behalf of Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel back in a Scorsese movie for the first time since 1988), Frank witnesses history. He claims he delivered weapons for the CIA to be used in the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, in the book, the retired hitman hints he might have been implicated in delivering the rifles that would later on be used to assassinate JFK. History literally flashes by Frank. And yet… and yet Frank is unaware of it. De Niro’s Sheeran stays a working stiff. He completes his tasks and deals with the world in an extremely dissociative way. When Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino at his best in years) asks him, ”Would you like to be a part of this history?” Sheeran says in a dry, almost robotic manner, ”Yes… sir. I would.” And while the two become close friends, with Frank stating numerous times that Hoffa was the greatest man he ever knew, the Irishman is unable to truly engage with the world around him. The only familiar corners for him are mob hang-outs and union picket lines.

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In the company of some of America’s most powerful people.

Critics and fans have pointed out the absence of a truly meaningful female character. However, I cannot help but find, similarly to Scorsese, the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, as the key to the puzzle. Peggy has very few lines throughout the entirety of the film, but her silence speaks volumes of how her father goes about living his life. She watches as the heavy-set man quietly exits the house at night to carry out a hit. She watches as her father shoves a gun into his pocket before going on a trip. She watches the man sitting across the table from her, reading the morning newspaper with the headlines of a grizzly murder he most likely committed. He offers no answers. But she’s figured him out. And she pities him. And as the years go by, the little girl turns into a teenager and eventually into an adult woman with a family, but her silence remains and acts as a reminder to Frank of what this life he’s so proudly gone through, from veteran to truck driver to bodyguard and even union boss, had to offer and what he’s missed out on.

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Peggy watching as her father sets an example.

Unlike Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa was a man with principles who fought for survival with any means necessary. He was as popular as Elvis and as opposed as a Communist. He was a folk hero and a public enemy. He had life-long friends and sworn opponents like Robert F. Kennedy. He was a fanatic when it came to being on time and staying sober. He was proud and ultimately, this pride cost him his life.
In The Irishman, Hoffa is the ultimate embodiment of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. After doing four years of prison time and turning his back on the gangsters that helped him grow in power as president of the union for 15 years, Hoffa’s on his own. His extravagant temper filled with wild outbursts and blunt accusations soon sees him on the receiving end of serious threats. ”What don’t you people understand?” says Hoffa upon a confrontation with Pesci’s Bufalino. ”It’s not about money. This is my union.” As viewers, we witness Hoffa slowly but surely sink with the ship he so lovingly protected and fought for over the years. The man whose word used to be worth more than the president’s is not on a pedestal anymore. He’s become touchable. And instead of listening to Sheeran’s advice to step down and enjoy what his career brought him, Hoffa’s fighting spirit persists. Because that’s all he’s got. In the face of his own mortality, his life hanging on a very thin thread, Hoffa chooses to stay true to himself, to his legacy and reputation, unaware of the fact that the people out there to hurt him have no respect for such things. ”They wouldn’t dare,” he says.

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A friendly warning.

The much talked about de-aging VFX technology contributes to the theme of mortality. Instead of looking at it from a purely technical standpoint, I encourage everyone to see past the hiccups and imperfections and incorporate them as part of the grand scheme of things. We see some of cinema’s greatest actors go through a process meant to rejuvenate them and help give the film a structured sense of narrative rather than have different, younger actors play the same parts and then as the story progresses, switch them with their older counterparts.
One cannot help but think about the inevitability of mortality as we see De Niro play what is supposed to be a twenty-year old soldier with the physique of a seventy-six year-old man, who can hardly lift up a heavy rifle. When forty-year old Hoffa is supposed to get up and storm out of a room in a frenzy, we see Pacino struggle to maintain his balance while walking away in a pair of slippers. It’s imperfect. But it fits. And it underlines the nature of these characters, and the people behind them.
As a fan, I see my idols have a hard time in doing what once came natural to them. I see De Niro, who used to transform his body for the sake of the art form, struggle with walking at a faster pace. I see Pesci, whom I remember from his hilarious stunts in Home Alone and his larger-than-life presence in films like Goodfellas and Casino, walk down a set of stairs with a clearly pained expression on his face. Even with the most sophisticated technology… You cannot stop the machine. You cannot stop life. As Bufalino tells Frank, when giving him one final yet life-altering order, ”It’s what it is.”

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”Only three people have one of these… and only one of them is Irish.”

Was this Scorsese’s swan song? Certainly not (as he’s already preparing for Killers of the Flower Moon, set for filming in 2020). However, The Irishman is undoubtedly a testament to the careers of some of cinema’s finest artists. It is an epic confrontation with the past and a final stand-off with what is to come. Whatever that may be.

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All we can do is choose our own headstones.

Wasted Talent

”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.

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De Niro’s Lorenzo, the local bus driver.

Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.

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Whether you say yes or no can make a difference.

De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.” De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”

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Sonny and the lucky kid.

Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.” 

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”It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try and get up every morning to work for a living!”

In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

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”You ever heard of Machiavelli?”

The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.

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”I don’t understand, Dad.”