by Alan Yudman
If you look for comments about THE IRISHMAN on social media you’ll probably come across a lot of things.. most notably that it is over three hours long and it stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. But this remarkable film is so much more.
The first thing I will tell you is don’t be daunted by its length. Yeah it would be great to see it in a theater, but watching at home was deeply satisfying and I was able to take a bathroom break without missing anything. Again, that is about the mechanics of watching this movie rather than what I should be talking about… this is an incredible film that feels like an exclamation point on Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre of mob movies.
The framework is a decades long story about Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an enforcer for the Philadelphia mob who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. This is a deeply felt story about loyalty, respect and honor. Sheeran’s loyalty to Pesci’s mob boss, Russell Bufalino is put to several tests yet he never wavers in doing what he believes to honor that relationship. And it is tested with his relationship with Hoffa (Pacino). The legendary Teamster’s boss has his own brand of loyalty and respect. He is fiercely loyal to his union members and he believes that the Teamsters should be a powerful force in America. He also believes that will bring him a measure of respect that he deserves. Hoffa and Sheeran work well together until Hoffa’s goals clash with those of the mob. But Sheeran’s code of loyalty motivates him to try to save Hoffa. But in the end he must choose a side and he goes with Bufalino and in the end he suffers for that choice.
The movie is filled with powerful performances from De Niro, Pesci and Pacino. We have seen De Niro and Pacino play these types of characters before. The real joy here is Pesci, who sets aside his manic New York-ness in favor of a subtler portrayal of a powerful mob boss. It makes you wish Pesci did more of this kind of acting when he was younger. That’s not to say De Niro and Pacino aren’t wonderful. De Niro’s Sheeran is quietly dangerous, while Pacino’s Hoffa is filled with rage and hubris. Watching these three work together is a joy we have waited too long for.
There has been some criticism for not giving Anna Paquin more to do as Sheeran’s daughter. True she doesn’t have a lot of lines. But acting is more than reciting words. It is embodying a character through physicality. That is the work Paquin is doing here. The disapproving looks she gives her father and Pesci tell you all you need to know about what she thinks of these two powerful men that are involuntarily a part of her life. I loved her performance. One more great supporting performance is turned in by Ray Romano who plays a mob lawyer.
Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography sets a perfect tone and Robbie Robertson’s score is marvelous. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is on the mark. The movie spans more than 30 years and Scorsese used a much publicized de-aging technology so Pesci, Pacino and De Niro could play themselves throughout. It was a little distracting at first but I got used to it and eventually didn’t notice it at all.
Could THE IRISHMAN have been shorter? I don’t think so. Should it have been split up as a TV mini-series? I don’t think so. That would deprive the world of being able to sit still and watch a masterpiece delivered by one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Kudos to Martin Scorsese. This film will make you appreciate what it is to create a great work of art.