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The Irishman

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This isn’t a review of The Irishman, which I watched with my family last night. The short version is that I was rather unimpressed. As a filmmaking feat, it’s technically impressive (though the vaunted de-aging technology just makes the characters look like they spent thirty years being middle-aged), but also an overlong, self-indulgent slog that often verges on self-parody—mob hitman Frank Sheeran has to think about his whole life before he kills Jimmy Hoffa. Unless you’re a particular fan of mob movies or Martin Scorsese, or are looking forward to what might be the last major performances by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, I’d give it a miss. (And either way, I absolutely urge you to see the film on Netflix rather than in theaters. I can’t even imagine having to sit through its tedious three-and-a-half hours without the ability to take periodic breaks.)

But what I want to talk about is the way the film discusses—or rather, fails to discuss—Hoffa, unions, the connection between the two and organized crime, and how that has impacted American society well into the 21st century. As De Niro’s Frank points out, for a period in the middle of the 20th century, Hoffa was one of the most famous and influential men in America, but today he’s virtually unknown, and young people tend to know him mainly for having disappeared. The Irishman treats this as simply the inevitable result of the passage of time, which tracks with the film’s primary concern of depicting an elderly Frank looking back on his life and realizing that his illegal activities and violent tendencies have left him lonely and unloved. But to me, the fact that Hoffa has been memory-holed and turned into a joke felt very familiar, the sort of thing that mainstream culture does to people whose ideas it finds troublesome. Turning Hoffa into a punchline is a great way of avoiding the question of what the organization he ran, and unions in general, tried to accomplish. By ignoring this, The Irishman flattens the history it claims to depict.

As portrayed in The Irishman, Pacino’s Hoffa is a true believer with feet of clay. He’s happy to work with the mob and use their connections to advance his career, but sees himself primarily as the union’s steward (and particularly, the steward of its billion-dollar pension fund). He doesn’t think of himself as a mobster or a criminal, but as a man using all the tools at his disposal to protect the members of his union. When he’s jailed, his replacement is more amenable, allowing the mob to use the pension fund as a piggy bank. Hoffa’s threats to shut off the money spigot (and call in existing loans) if he regains control of the Teamsters’ union are the reason he’s killed. I have no idea how accurate any of this is (and apparently the real Sheeran’s claim to have killed Hoffa has been greeted with derision by the FBI and other experts on the case, so it’s probably a solid bet that the rest of the movie also plays fast and loose with history). But it seems to me that there’s a much more interesting story to be told here than the self-pitying musings of an aging mobster, and that 2019 is just the right time to tell it. I found myself thinking that one reason to lament the fact that Hoffa’s remains have never been found is that we will never get an Erik Visits an American Grave entry for him, in which we could discuss how Hoffa both advanced and failed the cause of unions, and how his corruption and notoriety were used to weaken them. (Looking through the blog’s archives, though, I see that Erik has discussed the Teamsters’ union, and touched briefly on Hoffa and his legacy.)

Though the film notes the role of unions in protecting the rights of workers and securing their retirement, it usually does so with a heavy layer of irony. At the beginning of his criminal career, Frank weasels his way out of a charge of having stolen his truck’s load of sides of beef—which we saw him do—through the protection of his local union. Frank’s young daughter Peggy becomes enamored of Hoffa and the ideals he seems to represent, of protection and solidarity for the working man, but her enthusiastic recitation of his stump speech at school is intercut with examples of Hoffa’s corruption and the illegal acts Frank performs for him. When Frank himself becomes the president of a local, we’re shown that he uses that position for graft and violence. The Irishman could have used that irony to point out how Hoffa and his mob connections ended up slaughtering their own cash cow, and, along the way, hurting millions of American workers. How their actions caused unions to become associated with corruption and crime in the minds of middle class Americans, who happily elected the plutocrat-backed politicians who promised to fight that corruption, and ended up gutting workers’ rights for everyone. But instead the film remains focused on the personal, with no broader political statement.

In one of the film’s final scenes, an elderly Frank shows a nurse at his retirement home a picture of Hoffa. She clearly has no association with the name, which gives Frank an opportunity to lament the passage of time. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting if she’d reacted with the disgust that popular culture has trained people of her (and my) age to have towards Hoffa—and, implicitly, towards the idea of unions? What if Frank had talked to her about unions, and discovered that she has fewer rights than a teamster in Hoffa’s day? Obviously, that’s not the movie Scorsese wanted to make, but I find that really unfortunate. I’m not sure the world needed another movie about a regretful anti-hero. But we could certainly use more fiction about unions—even the corrupt ones—that tries to cut through the reflexive antipathy we’ve been taught to have for them. It’s a shame that The Irishman isn’t that movie.

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