Old Fellas (on The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese)

The New York Times published an op-ed by Martin Scorsese on 4 November 2019, a few days after The Irishman, his eagerly awaited motion picture, had opened in restricted theatrical release and about three weeks before the film would become available exclusively for streaming on Netflix, the company that had put up the money for the movie after the studios passed on it. In the opinion piece, Scorsese responds to criticisms of an interview he had recently given to Empire magazine in the UK, during which he remarked about Marvel movies: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.” He added, “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” In the Times piece, the director explains what he meant by referring to the contemporary revolution in motion picture exhibition from theatrical screening to video streaming, which he regards as a symptom of “the most ominous change [which is] the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”

Scorsese’s principled remarks are creditable. His judgment that formulaic Marvel motion pictures have become the standard of risk-free entertainment for a younger generation would seem to be accurate. At least every Avenger, Thor, or Captain America I have seen invariably ends like an ancient Flash Gordon episode, with the defeat of the villainous aliens but with dark hints that evil has not perished and that trouble is brewing or germinating or skulking somewhere in the dark corners of the universe—there to be confronted in the next installment of the serial. In the ever-expanding Marvel universe, everyone involved makes money and, later, more money. The problem with Scorsese’s comments is not his generational critique of what we might call the “de-risking” of the cinema, but that he renders that judgment in the context of his alliance with Netflix, which subsidized the film to the tune of 160 million dollars on the condition that after a month of restricted theatrical exhibition it would be accessible to audiences only on Netflix’s streaming service, a decision that diluted, if not contradicted, the influential director’s publicized commitment to providing an audience a community experience in a theater. 

The paramount risk that Scorsese took with The Irishman was not financial. As he admits, it was technological. He needed Netflix’s huge investment in order to subsidize his experiment in de-aging, conducted in concert with Industrial Light and Magic, and apparently undertaken out of loyalty to the seventy-five-year-old Robert De Niro, who had discovered Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (published in paperback in 2005) and recommended that Scorsese acquire the movie rights. He also urged that he be given the lead role of Frank Sheeran, the “Irishman” who narrates the episodes of mob deals and mob justice in which he was involved or of which he was informed. Scorsese approved the casting. Joe Pesci, another Scorsese stalwart, gives a remarkable performance as Russell Bufalino, mob boss of Northeastern Pennsylvania and parts of upstate New York, who sponsors Sheeran’s membership in the mob. Al Pacino, the third member of The Irishman’s central trinity, had never worked with Scorsese before but has been closely identified with the gangster genre since his breakout role as the son and heir of the Don of the Corleone “family” in The Godfather I and II, and is dynamic as the formidably unpredictable James Riddle Hoffa, head of the powerful Teamsters Union to which Sheeran belongs. The alliance between the mob and the union is tightened when Hoffa, who has more than his share of enemies, acts on Bufalino’s recommendation and telephones Sheeran, to whom he remarks, “I heard you paint houses,” gangland slang for commissioned hits that splatter blood from targeted victims on the nearest wall. Sheeran acknowledges he does. Their bond is sealed.

The connection that Sheeran’s dual affiliations forge is initially valuable to both organizations—for Hoffa, who can rely on the mob’s readiness to supply the necessary muscle to silence competitors to the Teamsters’ sovereignty over interstate commerce, and for the mob, which can rely on “loans” from the union’s vast pension fund in order to make massive investments in hotels and casinos. Bufalino has acted as Sheeran’s paternal guide and protector. Hoffa embraces Sheeran as a brother and blends their families at holidays to the extent that Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, becomes closer to him than to her father. But there are families, and then there are the mobster Families, which demand a deeper allegiance than wives and daughters can secure. Hoffa becomes a liability to the mob when, on his return from a stint in a federal prison, he stridently insists on resuming his role as president of the Teamsters and makes an enemy of Tony Provenzano, who has union status and mob cred, willfully upsetting the alliance that had been profitable for both organizations. When the situation becomes intolerable to Bufalino and his peers, Sheeran’s intimacy with Hoffa is exploited as the means to eliminate the reckless troublemaker secretly and permanently. Acting on Bufalino’s orders, Sheeran lures Hoffa to a house in the Detroit suburbs and “paints a wall” with his friend’s blood. 

To consider The Irishman as an ambitious and compelling documentation of a turbulent period in American history, which Scorsese’s own evolution as a director progressively comprehends, involves addressing the significance of the theme of generation in his work and his approach to the material. Scorsese’s direction is generation. Scorsese’s film is generated, not only because it relies on a digital technology to de-age his principal actors, but because it is, in the broadest possible sense, a genre film—a gangster film, of course. The gangsters themselves are of a kind, which is generated by their ethnicities, their neighborhoods, their families; by their deep-seated need to acquire a self-begotten distinction, to be in control of their destiny, and to slake their appetite for money and respect. Those objectives are both enabled and bridled by their membership in a masculine organization that profitably channels their violent natures by demanding loyalty, obedience, and enterprise. The Italian-American gangsters have a will to be part of a gens—call it a tribe—which mimics the ethos if not exactly the methods of those corporate syndicates that rule the cities where the mob successfully swindles and kills with little or no vulnerability to those whose job it is to enforce the law but whose pleasure it is to take a bribe in order to look the other way. 

The Irishman has been not unreasonably described as self-reflexive, but a more apt label that captures its prevailing ethos is generational reflexivity. Sheeran does all the talking, but he rarely talks about himself, what he thought and how he felt, except as a survivor of an expired generation. He is the medium through which Scorsese can brilliantly reflect on the customs, the mentality, and the deeds of that generation—a reflection characterized by documentary rigor and an objectivity guaranteed by a narrator incapable of self-reflection. The narrative is an autobiography of the gangster genre, for which Scorsese is best known, and which he here expands as an account of the expiration of a generation of mobsters who survived the dragnet launched by the Feds when they invaded the landmark 1957 Apalachin meeting of mobster bosses around the country, which was organized by Russell Bufalino, who escaped the round-up, and which convinced even the fervid anti-Communist J. Edgar Hoover that there was, indeed, a national organization of Italian mobsters called both the Mafia and Cosa Nostra.

Arguably, Scorsese’s status as an artist is not put at risk in the film by any interfering producer or looming wiseguy but by his decision to make Frank Sheeran, the subject of Brandt’s book, the focal character in the motion picture—both as protagonist and as its implied-to-be-authoritative narrator. The latter function is accomplished by flashbacks to the various meetings and murders described in Sheeran’s account. It is fair enough that we view activities that Sheeran couldn’t have witnessed, such as the confrontation between Jimmy Hoffa and Tony Provenzano in prison, or the prickly exchange about the fish odor in the back seat of the car between Sally Bugs, Provenzano’s favorite hitman, and Chuckie, Hoffa’s foster son, as they hasten to pick up Hoffa at the Machus Red Fox Inn. All credible. Other scenes in which Sheeran does appear—such as his delivery of a truckload of weapons to Howard Hunt, who then supervises the anti-Castro irregulars as they load machine guns on a transport plane bound for Cuba—stretch plausibility to the Gumpian limit. 

No doubt those unwitnessed and implausible scenes are included because they proceed from the book and because they both enrich the atmosphere of power, betrayal, and doom and enhance the historical scope and significance of Sheeran’s tale. Even more than the director’s problematic investment in the de-aging process, his ostensible faith in the truth of Sheeran’s autobiography involves risks that have consequences for an evaluation of Scorsese’s artistry. What Sheeran says and what we view seamlessly corroborate each other in a pattern of parallel editing between the narration and the narrative. We see what we hear.

According to Brandt, Sheeran devoted more than one hundred hours of his rapidly diminishing lifetime to the interview in order to tell and sell. In appendices to the 2005 paperback, Brandt presents additional evidence to shore up the factual integrity of the narrative, but to the voluble Sheeran it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Sheeran was ready to attest to whatever murder Brandt found plausible and could be expected to be plausible to those who would purchase the book or, eventually, watch its cinematic adaptation. Plausible—not necessarily convincing. The prospect of financial gain aside, self-glorification is the predictable weakness of a man who doubtless lived a life of danger and who outlived all of the men and women who might have challenged his narrative. Free of any fear of contradiction by word or weapon, and exempt from any skepticism embedded in Steven Zaillian’s script or Scorsese’s mise-en-scène, De Niro’s Sheeran is considerably more animated when telling his story than he is depicted at any time in the narrative, except during the early scene when he takes revenge on a grocer and on those occasions when he hammers those losers who dared resist the authority of Russell Bufalino. Clearly, Sheeran enjoys having an audience. Yet we can reasonably believe he has a more prudential, if unspoken, aspiration, which is to fulfill Bufalino’s injunction to take care of his family by passing along his anticipated share of the proceeds from the publication of the book as his legacy. And so, even after his stint with Brandt he refuses to admit to the FBI agents who visit him outside his assisted-living domicile that he was, in truth, the murderer of James Riddle Hoffa. Why spill the beans? Make the Feds wait to buy the book like everyone else.

Scorsese’s decision not to challenge Sheeran’s confession that he killed Hoffa has been widely criticized. For example, a clip on the website History vs. Hollywood entitled “The Biggest Lie in The Irishman” mentions that fourteen people had preceded Sheeran in claiming to have killed the renowned ex-Teamster president who, on his return from a prison term, was aggressively campaigning to reclaim leadership of “his” union from easygoing Frank “Fitz” Fitzsimmons, the timeserver who had been installed to sub for Hoffa while the latter served his time in jail. Both Hoffa’s widely publicized tantrums, and, worse, his decision to make it more difficult for the mob to “borrow” millions from the porous billion-dollar pension fund transformed him from a useful ally into a dangerous liability. And so, the hit was ordered. But it was not carried out by Sheeran, who takes credit in order to accommodate the agreeable, indeed, eager Brandt (represented by the silent auditor, who never questions Sheeran’s testimony) by confessing to between twenty-five and thirty murders while somehow eluding prosecution for committing any. The clip ends with the comment that “Director Martin Scorsese seems to have been more concerned with making a memorable movie than one that gets at the true story of Jimmy Hoffa’s death. Arguably, maybe that’s to our benefit, but it’s certainly not history’s game.”1

Scorsese has taken advantage of Sheeran’s surprising facility as a narrator who inserts himself at practically every momentous event in the vexed relations between the Teamsters and the mob in the decades roughly between 1955, when, as a Teamster, he met Russell Bufalino, and 1979, when he was convicted under the RICO act and imprisoned in order to thread together a series of events of crucial significance to the fortunes of organized crime, organized labor, and the U.S. Justice Department. From that perspective, the film is an historical fiction based on a book that makes flawed claims about the purported role of the narrator in events that no one doubts happened. Okay. Fictions are fictions, even historical ones, and are necessarily generated from someone’s perspective. There was no one living to take the place of Frank Sheeran, unreliable though he clearly was. But calling the motion picture a work of historical fiction is not entirely accurate either. A better description of the project would be that it is social anthropology. After a career of close attention to the mob’s ways and means, Scorsese is remarkably attuned to the rituals, values, argot, financial arrangements, union politics, ceremonial rings and tags, protocol allegiances, and betrayals that occur in and around two complex, hierarchical organizations—one criminal, one almost criminal, run by powerful men who brook no opposition. His directorial vision of the intricacies of that world, both incisive and imaginative, is utterly convincing, even if the credibility given to Sheeran’s account of his own part in the events is not. 

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather I offers an instructive alternative to Scorsese’s approach. The world of that film is superintended by the complex subjectivity of the Don, who possesses an aura of wisdom and authority that is ultimately passed along to his favored son before his death, despite the patriarch’s efforts to insulate him from the family business. The installation of Michael Corleone ensures some continuity, but, as we learn in The Godfather II, it comes with an evolutionary cost: the extinction of the Corleone family, which is effected by the order that Michael gives for the execution of his brother; the abandonment of ethnicity as a necessary qualification for marital and financial partners and for hired assassins; and, most crucially, the paradigmatic shift from a traditional, ascriptive organizational model to a rationalized corporate model appropriate to the task of controlling a substantial portion of the gambling industry in Las Vegas. The Irishman is a study of a generation of criminals who are almost completely bereft of subjectivity, who share an ethnic bond and an ethos of criminality imported from Sicily, and who are incapable of adaptation to an altered political and social landscape. There can be no The Irishman II, because there are no inheritors of the bosses’ authority after their deaths. Russell Bufalino had no offspring. Sheeran may have been sentimentalized as a son, but he was mobilized as an effective tool with no authority to act on his own. The sole survivor of an expired generation of mobsters who grew up in the Depression and were either executed or condemned to die in prison, he has, with the able assistance of his invisible Boswell, become enabled to fabricate a narrative in which he is the universal fixer and sole witness. 

Sheeran is a pervasive presence, but there are few shots taken from his point of view. Nothing personal. Sheeran narrates the events we see as they occur, maintaining an objectivity that seems as reliable as a camera. His narrative is artfully manipulated to convince us that what he says and what he sees are accurate, but it leaves the viewer ignorant of what Sheeran thinks or feels as he executes his bosses’ orders. Never once are we prompted to doubt Sheeran’s objectivity. But if anyone can demonstrate that objectivity is not the same as the truth, it is Frank Sheeran. If he doesn’t want to tell the truth he either pleads ignorance; or takes the Fifth, as he does on the witness stand; or politely declines to answer a possibly incriminating question, as he does to the FBI agents who question him outside the assisted-living home; or he regales his interviewer, with whom he has entered into his final business deal, with the tale of how he killed Jimmy Hoffa. 

Scorsese’s most radical departure from Brandt’s account is the introduction of a Catholic dimension to the narrative that surpasses the usual genre trappings—baptisms, weddings, and funerals—with which the faith is represented in the gangster genre (including The Godfather and in The Irishman itself) and that has attracted nothing like the critical attention the technology of de-aging and the debunking of Frank Sheeran have received. Sheeran is a nominal Catholic at best, and he is rarely at his best. His first wife, the mother of his first two daughters, is the religious one. Peggy is her daughter, a perceptive child, schooled in Catholic doctrine, and, and as we learn, capable of distinguishing good from evil. Early on the young girl is seated silently—too silently—at the dining room table doing her homework in her parochial school uniform when, in response to Sheeran’s question, “What’s wrong with her?” his wife informs him that Peggy was shoved by the irate owner of the corner grocery store. Enraged, he grabs Peggy’s hand, drags her to the corner store, and makes her watch as he beats down and stomps on the grocer. At first, she seems traumatized by her father’s ultra-violent response. But later she does visibly relax in the playful and affectionate company of Jimmy Hoffa. Her happiest moment in the film occurs when she makes a classroom presentation in praise of the Teamsters Union under the watchful eyes of a nun. On her uniform she is wearing a large Teamster campaign button imprinted with Hoffa’s smiling face. Over the years, as she persists in her silence in her father’s presence, what had seemed to be trauma comes to carry the force of a judgment on a wrathful man who is self-condemned by his acts of violence and by his associations with other brutal, silent men who take upon themselves the right to decide who deserves to live and who must die.

Richard Brody has drawn a suggestive parallel between Peggy’s silences and those of the secretive men who are her father’s associates. When he claims, however, that “Peggy’s silences are of exactly the same kind, exactly the same caliber, exactly the same level of insight as Frank [Sheeran]’s and Russell [Bufalino]’s silences, as well as those of other gangsters whose communications must take place in code and in silence for the purpose of legal deniability,” he misses a crucial difference between moral judgment and legalistic calculation, between bearing witness and conspiring, and between a passive resistance to the blandishments of men immersed in sin and a career of passive obedience to criminals who commission or perform evil deeds, whether by word or glance or gun.2 Sheeran brought Hoffa into Peggy’s world and encouraged their intimacy. And then he ruthlessly took Hoffa out of the world altogether. Hoffa’s affection was the one gift Sheeran gave his daughter and the worst possible connection he could take away. 

Peggy’s commitment to breaking with her father permanently by separating from the family he casually rules is not protestant; it is catechistic, answerable to this definition of the moral conscience: 

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary.3

She obeys her conscience by avoiding the evil that her conscienceless father incarnates. 

Peggy decides to leave home and take a job as a bank teller after she, along with her family, realizes that her father’s cowardly failure to place a timely call to Hoffa’s widow after his friend’s disappearance is the tell that he performed the killing. When he later seeks Peggy out at the bank, she closes her window and walks away. Brody calls this act the “ultimate rejection and repudiation of her father and his world [that] is more than merely practical—it’s a sort of monastic renunciation.”4 The action is a withdrawal from the family, to be sure, and definitely a repudiation, but “monastic,” though it firmly strikes the Catholic key, is a bit too strong. She surely goes home at night. She communicates with the rest of her family. Moreover, the scene has its irony: she renounces her father and all of his works by taking a job as a teller in an institution where other people’s money is protected, not stolen, and where she is insulated from her father’s imploring aggression, both by the glass that prevents him from climbing over the counter and because, unlike Clyde Barrow, he doesn’t rob banks. He paints houses.

Frank Sheeran displays his incapacity to grasp the extent of his paternal dereliction in the scene of his visit to his daughter Irene, who scrunches warily in the corner of a couch as he pleads that she intercede with the intransigent Peggy:

FRANK: She walked away. I know that she’s mad at me and all that. But I want to call her, call her. I just want to talk to her.

IRENE: Talk to her and tell her what?

FRANK:: Well, I just want to say I’m sorry, that’s all.

IRENE:: For?

FRANK:: Look I know I wasn’t a good dad. I know that. I was just trying to protect her. Protect all of youse. That’s what I was doing. 

IRENE:: From what?

FRANK:: From everything.

For Sheeran, parental love means saying “sorry” but not meaning it. His “everything” is nothing to his daughter, who refuses to accept the stuttered apology that is her father’s pathetic attempt to be exonerated of his lifelong neglect by striking a deal, not by acknowledging his guilt for preferring a career of murderous acts to his responsibilities as a husband and a father.5 

Indeed, we soon learn that Sheeran is, in truth, incapable of being sorry. Or thinks he is. The scene in which he meets with the FBI agents transitions by a sound overlap to the last verses of “Hail Holy Queen,” which the visiting priest recites to the ailing man, who has long ago forgotten the words and is oblivious to their meaning. There has apparently been a discussion of Sheeran’s crimes. But it is clear that the man has made no act of contrition. When the priest, who is intent on shriving Sheeran before he dies, asks him, “Do you feel anything for what you have done?” Sheeran replies with blunt honesty, “I don’t, but maybe because I am here talking to you, that in itself is an attempt . . .  an attempt . . .” The priest persists: “But you don’t feel anything at all?” And despite the fact that Sheeran must know that his soul is at stake, he again denies any such feeling: “No . . . Water under the dam.” It is a strange resistance. Sheeran has already recounted his final glimpse of Bufalino, which occurs when the dying man is wheeled out of the prison to confess to a priest his multitudinous inventory of sins before his appointment with death—just in time to escape hellfire. Sheeran must know that he can expect redemption only if he makes a truthful confession and a good act of contrition. Why not? He’s an Irish-American Catholic. It is the only faith he knows. The willingness of men who have committed terrible crimes to confess to them in a formal moment of honesty and contrition at the threshold of their death is proof of a residual Catholicism in even the most sinful of men, which corroborates the institutional power of the Church. Sheeran gets the honesty part but he doesn’t get the contrition part. He may confess to killing men, but he does not recognize their souls, a failing that infects every aspect of his sinful life. 

Nevertheless, the priest presses on.

PRIEST: Any remorse for the families?

FRANK:: I didn’t know the families . . . I didn’t know them. Except one, I knew ’em.

PRIEST:: I think we can be sorry, even when we don’t feel sorry. It’s for us to make a decision of the will, to say “God, I am sorry. God, forgive me. And that’s a decision of the will.”

FRANK:: What kind of man makes a phone call like that? 

PRIEST:: What do you mean? What phone call? 

FRANK:: I can’t . . . I can’t tell you.

The phone call he has in mind is the one that he, shamed by his family’s silent condemnation, finally made to Jo, Hoffa’s widow and mother of his children, during which he was compelled to listen to her distress and clumsily tried to persuade her that it was not what it was, that everything was going to be okay. That was no consolation. It was his exit line from Hoffa’s family and his own. In his last days, he has to face the grievous fact that the damage he has done to both families—to the women who have tried to love him—in filial service to Bufalino’s “Family” is irreparable. “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” He asks that strange question, drenched in pathos, in front of the priest, but not to the priest, who doesn’t understand what he means, which is strong evidence that Sheeran has not yet confessed to his murder of Hoffa, which he had no problem admitting to the interviewer, who could only promise profit, not redemption. 

Sheeran’s anguished question opens a moment of circumspection, and the fabulator becomes interesting, even sympathetic, not because of the story he tells, but because of the wholly unprecedented question he has asked of himself. The silence that follows the question would seem to render it rhetorical, as though he has resigned himself to an unanswerable self-condemnation, which is the subjective correlative of his inability to love, his failure to protect anyone in his family or the family of his friend from the harm that, like a soldier acting on orders, he felt obliged to commit. But a more charitable, pastoral disposition might very well acquit the man who, despite his absence of remorse, is surprised by sin, as if he has been graced by the word family, which springs the penitential recognition that in killing Hoffa he has wantonly destroyed two families: his friend’s and his own. It is a moment of grace abounding. We cannot see it. We cannot hear it. But it might be enough. And there is evidence that it is, for the next and last time we see the priest with Sheeran, he is performing an absolution of the man’s sins, completing the sacrament of confession. And now we know why the priest and Sheeran were initially reciting “Hail Holy Queen,” which begins by addressing the Virgin Mary as the “mother of mercy” and which we hear ending with the lines “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” instead of “Our Father . . . thy will be done.” Though a father may himself be merciless, the attainment of a mother’s mercy is never foreclosed. Sheeran is granted a mother’s mercy that he does not deserve, in an unwilled moment of recognition that a man cannot escape his sins—the Bressonian touch I take to be the decisive mark of Scorsese’s inimitable artistry and the legitimation of the risks he has taken. The social anthropology he has generated for the screen divulges a spiritual truth. 

It’s a matter of aging. . . . You see things differently. 

                                   Martin Scorsese, “In Conversation”

A reflection on a generation, a Family, of Italian-American mobsters, The Irishman is also conspicuously a reflection on the generation of actors who have played important roles in previous Scorsese films over the years. I say “conspicuously,” because in the videotaped conversation that follows the feature as an epilogue (an add-on to the Netflix stream that was doubtless included to compensate for the lack of the communal, theatrical experience by personalizing a movie that has dealt with distant events involving unsavory characters), Scorsese remarks, “It’s a reflective film. It’s a chamber piece in a way. It’s got the scale.” He adds, 

It happens to play out in the context of organized crime. But that’s just the context. It’s really a picture that, as we grew older, we were able to look at this world, this context, these characters with the humanity of people who [we?] know are together, who are loyal to each other, love each other—and then there has to be a betrayal. It just seemed to fall into place for our age. It was strange. And so the picture is more intimate and personal. It’s got a big canvas, but it stays with the three guys.

The “three guys” refers to Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa, the men who together form the deadly triangle on which the anthropologist focuses and around which the narrative navigates. The trio is represented in this postmortem by the corps of the three superb actors who played those characters: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, whose presence implicitly evokes his role in the canonical Godfather I and II. All are Italian-Americans, as, of course, is Scorsese, the director of the conversation as he was of the film.6 Scorsese renders The Irishman as a grand reflection on the passing of a generation of Italian-American gangsters, a reflection enriched by the participation of the senior members of a generation of Italian-American actors, tribal elders, who take ownership of this story and this genre at the behest of the man who has done more over the years than anyone to represent vividly the ways and means by which an immigrant generation organized itself to corporatize the familial world those men inhabited and in which they acquired power and, for a period of time, glory. A bystanding critic would find it difficult to improve on Pacino’s proclamation of the tribe’s final possessory credit: “It’s about our world, our America,” except, perhaps, to add that it is also about the past.


*An essay-review of The Irishman. Directed by Martin Scorsese. New York: TriBeCa Productions, 2019. 209 minutes. Available for streaming on Netflix.

1. “Why The Irishman is NOT the True Story of Jimmy Hoffa’s Death.” History vs. Hollywood, 14 January 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA_zT4PSkXc&feature=emb_title. For other challenges to Sheeran’s account in the book and the film, see Bill Tonelli, “The Lies of the Irishman” (Slate, 20 August 2019 [https://slate.com/culture/2019/08/the-irishman-scorsese-netflix-movie-true-story-lies.html]); Jack Goldsmith, “Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman: A True Crime Story?” (NYR Daily, 26 September 2019 [https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/09/26/jimmy-hoffa-and-the-irishman-a-true-crime-story]); Julie Miller, “The True Story Behind The Irishman: The Inconvenient Truth About the Movie’s Central Confession” (Vanity Fair, 1 November 2019 [https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/11/the-irishman-true-story-frank-sheeran]); and Dan Moldea, “Is the New Martin Scorsese Movie Based on a True Story?” The Mob Museum Blog, 14 November 2019 [https://themobmuseum.org/blog/is-the-new-martin-scorsese-movie-based-on-a-true-story/?fbclid=IwAR0_86kHiJeq4rXV2HO8Q-s7eA4_TF2rGIjHSnsmkw7Tujr8LX8X3L008eI]).

2. Richard Brody, “Watching The Irishman on Netflix Is the Best Way to See It,” The New Yorker, 2 December 2019, newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/watching-the-irishman-on-netflix-is-the-best-way-to-see-it.

3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three: Life in Christ; Section One, Chapter One: The Dignity of the Human Person; Article 6: “The Moral Conscience.”

4. Brody, “Watching The Irishman.”

5. I recommend consulting Laura Bogart’s searching essay “In Defense of Peggy’s Silence in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman” for a laudatory, incisive, and moving account of Scorsese’s compelling representation of Peggy’s repudiation of her father (RogerEbert.com, 6 March 2020, rogerebert.com/features/anna-paquin-the-irishman-martin-scorsese-netflix-robert-de-niro).

6. As his Wikipedia bio discloses, De Niro was the last to make the cut. He was born to a father of Irish and Italian descent, while his mother was of Dutch, English, French, and German ancestry. He played Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, best friend of the lead, Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, who was adopted when young by an Italian-American couple, but had Scottish ancestry. Art imitates life in that film, since the characters’ ancestries precluded each from ever becoming a “made man” in the Italian-American mob. De Niro does have enough Irish to qualify as the lead in The Irishman, though he acquired Italian citizenship and an Italian passport at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, despite objections to the promised honor from the Order Sons of Italy in America, who deplored his portrayals of mobsters.


Jerome Christensen is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, where he formerly taught film studies and Romantic literature. He is the author of four books on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and philosophy as well as his most recent book, America’s Corporate Art: Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Stanford University Press, 2012). He has published film-related essay-reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently at work on an essay on Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In and Pain and Glory and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.