A few months ago in the New York Review of Books, Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith wrote a thorough dismantling of I Heard You Paint Houses, the source material for Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman. The book, written by medical malpractice attorney Charles Brandt, profiles mob-connected teamster Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro in the film) and purports to tell the true story of Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous 1975 disappearance while Hoffa (played by Al Pacino, in his first Scorsese film) was trying to regain control of the nation’s largest union.
According to Goldsmith, Brandt patched together the book from three differing, inconsistent and dubious “confessions” the dying Sheeran gave to the Hoffa murder. Goldsmith himself has a personal stake in the story, as his stepfather was Chuckie O’Brien — an adopted son of Jimmy Hoffa who was the prime suspect in the murder for many years. Goldsmith spent seven years researching the case and trying to clear O’Brien’s name while O’Brien (played by Jesse Plemons in the movie) was dying himself, as detailed in Goldsmith’s own book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, released earlier this year. It’s a battle of conflicting legacies.
Without getting too far into the factual weeds, most insiders agree that Sheeran’s account seems fairly unconvincing. Purported Philly mob boss John Berkery notably told Slate, “Frank Sheeran never killed a fly. The only things he ever killed were countless jugs of red wine.”
For his part, Scorsese hasn’t claimed historical accuracy (“As Marty says, we’re not saying we’re telling the actual story, we’re telling our story,” De Niro told Indiewire). Their story has Sheeran participating in a number of famous mafia slayings, like a mob story Forrest Gump — including the famous hit on Crazy Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House (with Gallo played by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco).
It wouldn’t be the first time Scorsese based a movie on the account of an unreliable narrator. At least this time around Sheeran isn’t alive to show up in an embarrassing cameo like Jordan Belfort did in Wolf Of Wall Street. Goldsmith and plenty of other Hoffa authorities are naturally miffed about Scorsese putting such a dubious version into the public consciousness. Yet for as much as the facts depart, what’s striking is that The Irishman and Goldsmith’s book have almost identical story arcs.
Both serve as requiems, of sorts, to a certain kind of dude. Try as he might, Goldsmith could never get his stepfather to admit to exactly what happened on the day of Hoffa’s murder, even on O’Brien’s deathbed. You’re an old man, all your associates are dead, why can’t you just set the record straight? A scene in The Irishman plays out much the same way, with Sheeran at the center.
For guys like Sheeran and O’Brien, silence wasn’t about avoiding consequences or even about fidelity to their associates. It was about adherence to a code, about living life a particular way, even as that way seemed to promise nothing but the high likelihood of a violent death. Scorsese uses recurring annotated freeze frames, like pop-up video titles, to highlight just how many players in this story died by some form of murder.
“Stubborn Old Men” wouldn’t have been a bad title. The Irishman is essentially three hours of stocky men refusing to apologize. One of the most fateful (and enjoyable) relationships in the film is between Pacino’s Hoffa and Stephen Graham’s “Tony Pro” Provenzano (who would’ve ever guessed Tommy from Snatch would go on to play all our most famous mobsters?). The teetotaling workaholic Hoffa and fun-loving Pro make odd couple frenemies, almost biologically incapable of granting each other even the tiniest bit of empathy or sensitivity. Did these two petty shitheads doom an entire way of life?
Scorsese loves a good requiem, whether it be for the Wise Guy high life in Goodfellas, the days of mob-controlled Vegas in Casino, or for the salad days of organized labor in The Irishman. Wistfulness suffuses every frame. The Irishman begins in Frank Sheeran’s musty nursing home, a classic look-out, the-old-man’s-about-to-reminisce! framing device. Scorsese is so clearly nostalgic for the days when business was done face to face, when one was basically born to an organization and all that was required to rise within its ranks was loyalty, work ethic, and backbone. Oh, and shutting up when necessary.
The other frame for the story, a series of flashbacks within a flashback, is Sheeran’s fateful drive from Pennsylvania to Detroit with Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci) and their wives to attend a wedding — the trip plotted, as I gather one did in those days, in felt pen on a fold-out road map. The wives (Kathrine Narducci and Aleksa Palladino) are furious that Bufalino won’t let them smoke in the car. They pass by the filling station where Sheeran and Bufalino first met, flashing back (with the help of cutting edge de-aging CGI) to the days when Sheeran was a young truck driver fiddling under his hood and Bufalino was just a helpful bystander, knowing which belts to tighten to remove that knocking sound.
There’s a whole world evoked in just this one interaction — the pride in one’s work, the unspoken brotherhood between working men (white ones, anyway). A brotherhood made explicit in the title of Jimmy Hoffa’s union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Irishman works as a kind of Greek tragedy, with organized labor as the protagonist. It yearns for the world labor made even as it acknowledges all the reasons it couldn’t last. This world’s greatest asset and its greatest albatross? It was built by very stubborn men.
Simply putting De Niro and Pesci back together is a nostalgia play of its own, of course, a continuation of their journey from Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino to now. Scorsese seems more conscious than ever of his own legacy (and mortality) in The Irishman. It’s hard not to see Scorsese’s sense of his place in life reflected in the respective endings of his mob movies. In Mean Streets, released when Scorsese was 31, a brush with danger, a life-altering event with an ultimate outcome still unwritten. In Goodfellas, a middle-aged man lamenting that he’s become old and conventional. In Casino, a guy who’s narrowly survived some ordeals leans into life as a retiree.
What then does The Irishman say about Scorsese? It features a protagonist in a nursing home who at one point goes to pick out his own burial plot. Sheeran is wistful for a bygone world, with enough distance from it to see some of its, and his, errors more clearly. But also too late to do anything about them. In its flashbacks, the film pops. In its present, it lingers. “What’s our legacy?” they wonder.
Scorsese’s style is assured even as it occasionally shambles. Giving fewer fucks is both the blessing and the curse of age. The film, titled “The Irishman” nonetheless includes title cards at the beginning and the end reading “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the original title of the film and its source material. It’s hard to divine the purpose for this. Did Scorsese just not want to bother with changing it? Likewise, for all the space-age de-aging technology, 76-year-old Robert De Niro isn’t always physically capable of embodying a hulking enforcer in his prime. There’s a scene in which Sheeran stomps a grocer and all I could see were De Niro’s hunching gait and arthritic movements. The “young” actors’ shellacked faces are slightly uncanny at first, but you eventually get used to it. Same with De Niro’s blue eyes — also an odd choice. It’s not as if people are going to see Robert De Niro with blue eyes and go “Aha, now there‘s an Irishman.”
You sense Scorsese waving away potential problems and getting on with business, a different kind of stubbornness. There’s a charm to that even if some artistic decisions seem dubious in a vacuum. But life doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither does this story. The Irishman tantalizes. It rambles and dissembles. It sprawls. How could it not? How do you sum up a life spent (allegedly) at the center of fateful events in labor unions and the mafia? Or a career making iconic mafia movies?
You can’t, of course. But it’s fun to watch Marty try.