The Irishman as Teaching Opportunity

Martin Scorsese’s most recent film, The Irishman, is unusual in several ways: It is a Netflix Original (but had a one-month theatrical run). It is three-and-a-half hours long. And it (badly) CGIs the aging actors for flashback scenes.

The film also could serve as bookend for Scorsese’s gangster-obsessed career. For all any of us know, it might even be his last. (If this sounds in bad taste, consider how the photo accompanying a recent Timesinterview, “Martin Scorsese is Letting Go,” could be a mourning portrait. “Often, death is sudden,” Scorsese, 77, told them. “If you’re given the grace to continue working, then you’d better figure out something that needs telling.”)

Above all, Scorsese seems more intent to fight his usual urge to eroticize the violence of organized crime; by the end the film offers what might pass for wisdom (which is to say the film is mildly didactic).

The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran, a real-life Irish-American who worked for the Italian mob. In the film he fought in Sicily in the war, picked up the language, and while driving a truck around Philly in the ‘50s is recruited to do little jobs for the Bufalino crime family. He rises to be a chief bagman and killer. He is, in a sense, a nobody but rubs elbows with higher-ups in the family and with Jimmy Hoffa, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, all of whom trust and use him for their dirty work. (He also serves as President of a pivotal local, but none of this work is shown.) He lives the mob life fully—he is not around so much as a dad—and in the end, after being forced to choose between mob friends and Teamster friends, he does time in prison, gets old, and is shunted to a corner. He is lucky to have survived the life but is abandoned by time. The film was nominated for five Golden Globes. It stars usual suspects Robert De Niro (as Sheeran), Al Pacino (Hoffa), Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, et al.

I watched the film with my teen son. It took a long time to get through the epic, because he paused it every few minutes to ask about historical context, which I welcomed. Along the way we discussed (and sometimes looked online for details about) the mob’s anger over the Cuban Revolution; the Bay of Pigs (I attended University of Miami); the hatred of the mob and of Jimmy Hoffa for Bobby Kennedy; the JFK assassination (conspiracy theories about the mob teased-at but not portrayed); Watergate; the decline of unions in the last century; and of course the disappearance of Hoffa in 1975 and its function as proto-meme for decades.

There is a long list of qualifications and counter-claims about the film’s historical accuracy. In the film, the Sheeran character refuses to talk about his crimes, ever, but in life he talked plenty, for a book that led to this film. Many think Sheeran inflated his role in events. De Niro said, in that cringe-worthy defense from creative-writing workshops, “As Marty says, we’re not saying we’re telling the actual story, we’re telling our story.”

I found that my 14-year old was interested at first by Scorsese’s usual approach, making crime interesting. As Scorsese told the Times, “Well, [criminal violence] is glamorous and attractive, is it not? It’s glamorous at first if you’re young and stupid, which a lot of people are. I was.” But as my son and I watched, he began to exclaim over pop-up notes in the film, which tell how characters get murdered horrifically in real life. By the end, my son was able to articulate exactly the problem: Sheeran has done terrible things and is alone, old, infirm, and afraid to die. His pals are dead; his family will not talk to him. Even his nurse, one of his last human contacts, does not know who Jimmy Hoffa was.

Sheeran wanted to be special, untouchable, outside society and its laws, and his penultimate reward is to become an outcast. The wages of his sin is death, we might believe, though a priest works hard to offer him eternal life. But the film hints there are worse things—such as loneliness, once we are weakened to the point we can become aware of it.

The Irishman makes me think Scorsese chose to portray mobsters in other films because he felt they had exceptional vitality but now believes criminals are unexceptional. This film might be admitting the wages of life is death too.

“It’s all about the final days,” Scorsese told the Times. “It’s the last act.” The Irishman is suffused with this graying-out, whether we think of Sheeran, the film’s director, its actors, or poor all of us.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.