Saturday, December 14, 2019


Martin Scorsese's preoccupation with American corruption continues with THE IRISHMAN.

I had the fortuitous opportunity to watch this film in an actual theater, the Browning Cinema on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. I was glad that I was able to see it in this way--Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his movies should be seen on the big screen.

THE IRISHMAN is a very long, very involved tale of  organized crime and violence in post-WWII America. As such, it is being compared with other Scorsese gangster epics like GOODFELLAS and CASINO. THE IRISHMAN, however, is a very different picture. It has more nuance and subtlety--it's not a movie that hits you upside the head. There's plenty of horrific acts, but they are presented in a matter-of-fact, almost banal, manner.

Robert De Niro plays the title character, a Teamster truck driver named Frank Sheeran, who almost by chance becomes involved with organized crime. Frank's abilities enable him to become a bodyguard/confidant of powerful Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Al Pacino has the showier role as Hoffa, and he's excellent, but Robert De Niro brilliantly carries the film (he's in nearly every single scene, and when he isn't, you hear his voice narrating what is going on.)

Some may say that this is the type of role Robert De Niro has played many times before, but his Frank, as opposed to most of the other gangster characters the actor has portrayed, isn't particularly ambitious, nor does he thirst for power. As is made clear by references to his military service in WWII, Frank is a "good soldier", a man whose main talent is doing what his bosses tell him to do. The last part of the film shows just how far Frank is willing to take orders, and the price he pays for doing so.

THE IRISHMAN is not a slam-bang crime thriller--it's more a melancholy observation on modern American history. There's an overall sadness to this film, since it shows how corruption and fraud have permeated nearly all facets of American life--commerce, big business, labor, and of course politics. We see organized crime figures fight for power, die violently, or grow old in jail...and the movie asks, "What was it all for? What was gained in the end??"

Some have complained about the length of the movie, which is about three and a half hours (during the screening I attended a number of what was obviously Notre Dame students kept checking their phones). The story does lose a little steam at the end, but I think this was Scorsese's intention. This is a film that isn't lengthy just on purpose--there's a huge story here to tell, and Scorsese takes his time in telling it. Steven Zaillian's magnificent script is one in which what isn't said is as important as what is. (This so-called "controversy" over the lack of dialogue for Anna Paquin's character is absolutely ridiculous.) Mention must also be made of Thelma Schoonmaker's bravura editing and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography. It's very easy to lose focus during a overlong superhero epic, but THE IRISHMAN demands the viewer's attention all the way through.

I have a feeling that THE IRISHMAN will be even more appreciated as years go by and people are able to see it multiple times. It is the best new film I have seen in a theater in 2019.

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