Venerated director Martin Scorsese caused something of a ruckus recently, when he described superhero movies – the dominant genre at the box office today – as “not cinema.” Marvel and the like, he said in an interview with Empire magazine last month, is not “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Whatever one thinks of the Avengers franchise or their DC Comics counterparts, when a filmmaker as respected as Scorsese speaks out, you’d better listen – and learn.
“The Irishman,” Scorsese’s Netflix-funded gangster epic, proves that computer-generated imagery, unconventional streaming decisions and a bladder-testing runtime – some of the hallmarks of superhero movies – are not mutually exclusive with powerful, skilled and moving storytelling.
This is the antithesis to the superhero genre. It’s more super-antihero. Where Marvelet al go big, loud and bombastic, Scorsese is as understated as ever, even when depicting bloody violence. Unlike “Gemini Man,” an abysmal Will Smith then-and-now sci-fi abomination, Scorsese’s use of de-aging technology isn’t the whole point of the movie. Rather, it’s another tool at the director’s disposal.
“The Irishman” is a masterclass in every respect. It is epic in scope, intent and length. It is long-form cinema in the TikTok age. Everything that has earned Scorsese his many awards – his signature themes and styles – is on display here.
Scorsese revisits themes that have dominated his movies – the morality of people who commit acts of violence and evil; their conflicts and what they do to live with their guilt; the people they hurt deliberately and those they hurt along the way. As if this movie is a self-made career retrospective, a loving homage to the films he’s made, the characters he’s brought to life and the actors with whom he’s worked.
The sense of retrospective is reflected in the cast of “The Irishman.” This is the ninth Scorsese movie for Robert De Niro, who plays the title character; it is the fourth for Joe Pesci and the sixth for Harvey Keitel. Fittingly, given that his characters are often seeking to right past wrongs, this movie also provided Scorsese with the chance to finally work with Al Pacino, an actor he has long admired.
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Fact and fiction
“The Irishman” was adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from “I Hear You Paint Houses,” a 2004 work of narrative nonfiction written by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defense attorney Charles Brandt. The book chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran, an alleged mafia hitman who, according to Brandt, confesses to the crimes he committed while working for the Bufalino crime family – including the officially unsolved murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
Told in flashback, using de-aging technology that becomes less obtrusive as the movie progresses, we learn how Frank became a trusted friend to and hitman for some of the most important mafia figures of the day. We follow his career from small-time meat thief to mob assassin, from Hoffa’s hired muscle to high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. We learn how, during his World War II service in Europe, he was given implicit instructions to execute prisoners of war and how this was his training for becoming a mob hitman.
Like many of Scorsese’s films, “The Irishman” blends facts with long-rumored speculation – although not as much and not as mischievously as his recent Bob Dylan pseudo-documentary. Much of the plot centers, inevitably, on Hoffa’s feud with President John F. Kennedy and the events of the period. Frank talks openly about his role, for example, in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and, while denying direct involvement himself, is convinced that JFK was killed by the mafia. At one stage, Frank even tells Hoffa: “If they killed a president, they can kill the president of the union.”
That was one of the rare instances in “The Irishman” of straight talking. Because, at its heart, it’s a gangster movie and we all know that gangsters talk in code. The language of the mob has become part of mainstream vernacular – an offer he can’t refuse, going to the mattresses and so on – and “The Irishman” has a strong contender for another entry into the classic mafia lines: “It is what it is.” That’s what Frank is told when the mafia finally decides to get rid of his friend Hoffa. And, like the good soldier he is, Frank accepts that “it is what it is,” even though he knows he will pay a heavy personal price.
Ironically, and perhaps for the first time ever, viewers who are forced to ‘make do’ with watching “The Irishman” at home – because of Netflix’s feud with major movie theater chains, it has only had a limited released before it starts streaming on November 27 – may have an advantage over those of us who viewed it in a theater. Not only because of the convenience of being able to pause a movie that is whopping three and a half hours long, but because some scenes are so gripping, so packed with detail and nuance, that they are worth watching again and again.
If this is to be Scorsese’s swansong – and let us all hope it is not – it is a fitting one. Not just because it is an epic movie in every sense and not just because it showcases some of the outstanding talents of the past 50 years. It is fitting because it captures the essence of Scorsese’s body of work, enhances it and, even after 209 minutes, leaves us wanting more.