Has Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ Arrived Too Late?

The new film is neither as sombre and meditative as the work of contemporaries such as Robert Redford, nor as adaptive as the real-world activism of Jane Fonda

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman (2019), tells the story of Frank Sheeran, the Philadelphia-born gangster who created a crucial bridge between the Cosa Nostra and organized labour in the US in the 1960s. While it fills in important historical details about the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and their charismatic leader Jimmy Hoffa (played with winsome gusto by Al Pacino), the story is a familiar one: streetwise kid impresses mid-level mafioso, rises in the ranks, achieves wealth and status before everything falls apart in Act Four owing to greed, vanity or bad luck. It’s all narrated retrospectively, with asides to the audience piercing the omertà, drawing back the veil on the ostensibly obscure rites of the underworld.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

This is essentially the plot of every Scorsese mafia movie made over the past several decades, from Goodfellas (1990) to his Casino (1995) to The Departed (2006). Like many of his earlier outings, The Irishman features a dour Robert De Niro in a leading role and is marbled with a who’s-who of the genre, familiar faces from Donnie Brasco (1997), Boardwalk Empire (2010–14), The Sopranos (1999–2007) and everything in between. Understated performances by Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and countless other ‘that guys’ give one the sense of a warm family reunion. Working, typically, from non-fiction source material (Steven Zaillian’s script, drawn from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book about Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses), Scorsese has produced a sprawling, mannerist version of tropes of his own invention, using the same tricks that thrilled audiences some 46 years ago, beginning with Mean Streets in 1973.

When The Irishman debuts on streaming platform Netflix on 27 November, it will likely feel to audiences as soothing as Thanksgiving turkey, a tightly edited saga with charismatic actors playing predictable roles, a meta-exercise that tickles all the right nerve endings. And, no doubt, there is good reason for critics to hail the film as a return to form. It’s all there, from snappy jump cuts to baroque slow-mo, from sentimental family get-togethers to the unsentimental splattering of an associate’s brains across the pavement. From end to end, the film is archly set to the steady pulse of doo-wop and boogie-woogie piano, and its three-and-a-half-hour runtime goes by in a flash.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

But then, shouldn’t we expect more than brisk entertainment from a director who has gone on record of late deriding entire genres as market-driven or insufficiently cinematic, implicitly suggesting himself (and other boomer cineastes of the ’70s) as paragons of auteur-ship in the process? It has long been clear that Scorsese is unapologetically nostalgic, the kind of guy who waxes on about the greatness of Alfred Hitchcock or the Rolling Stones, about how, in general, ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to.’ (He recently did just that for The New York Times.) Indeed, while The Irishman is narrated across four temporal registers, the bulk of the film is set squarely in the 1960s – you know, when women were ‘broads’ and men ate steaks twice a day, and there were few people of colour in sight. In those days, it seems, the ruling clans of Chicago and the metropolises of the Mid-Atlantic made America great by trading derogatory slurs and sometimes breaking bread. A key conceit of the film is that Sheeran may be Irish, but his ability to move between the mob and the Teamsters, the Italians and the vast swath of Rust Belt proles, made him invaluable.

For all of its technical virtuosity, and despite its gilded cast, one wonders about The Irishman: Why now? At best, it tells a story of modern America in the tones of pungent regionalism, in which the perennial capitalist hustle is no different than being in the Army. As Hoffa remarks, just like during the War, to get from point A to B, you gotta ‘spill a little blood along the way.’ This kind of moral equivalency has long been Scorsese’s way of valorizing criminality: for the ruthless immigrant gangs of 19th-century New York and the delirious ‘wolves of Wall Street’ alike, the American dream is one forged in violence. 

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Charitably, one could make the argument that Scorsese is working here with broad tableaux, tracing a dense history that gave rise to the presidency of John F. Kennedy (and, later, Donald Trump), built – like the mob at mid-century – on casino wealth, corrupt self-dealing and the populist power of former union towns. More deeply, one might surmise that, in taking in the prospect of his own oeuvre, the director is reckoning with a culture that has so come to identify with the anti-hero that it has stumbled into a moral pit.

But I don’t think so. Eisenhower-era revivalism was commonplace in the 1980s, as a generation looked back to an age of consensus, before social turmoil and economic upheaval. As boomers came of age, a bit of yearning or critical appraisal of the topographies of their own childhoods was to be expected. But much has happened since Goodfellas debuted a generation ago, and the touching weariness of Joe Pesci and Ray Romano’s Bufalino cousins in The Irishman is neither as sombre and meditative as the recent work of contemporaries such as Robert Redford, nor as adaptive as the real-world activism of octogenarians such as Jane Fonda. Indeed, the ’60s themselves have been worked to death in the meantime, no less in series like Mad Men (2007–15), which took its time teasing out complexities of race, sex and class, and gave starring turns to women actors.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

There’s an exhaustion that suffuses The Irishman, a sense of dread that an era is coming to an end, and all your friends are gone. Back in 1995, the film Heat knowingly teased the off-camera fantasy of pairing Pacino’s Michael Corleone with De Niro’s Vito in a single moment. There, the former’s volcanic cop circled the latter’s disciplined (Irish-descended) robber; their parley in an LA diner crackled with energy, serving as a fulcrum for the entire film. The two actors are united again in The Irishman, outward affects much the same, but they play their scenes like an old married couple. The film is bookended by Frank Sheeran’s hardboiled narration from an actual retirement home – but we don’t need to hear it. Like the yarns of an aging grandparent, we know the punchlines by rote. As expertly as it is realized, The Irishman feels less like a film of the moment and, in spite of its gritty swagger, more a paean to days gone by.

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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