The Irishman, the latest film by the legendary American director Martin Scorsese, has been eagerly anticipated. Now that it has finally hit screens large and small (the movie is a Netflix production, and transferred to the online streaming service shortly after its cinema release), it reveals itself to be a genuine masterpiece.
The film is based upon the true story of Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), the delivery-worker-turned-Mafia-hitman who became the enforcer of the notorious Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The story is told from the perspective of Sheeran as he approaches the end of his life.
Hoffa, who was general president of the Teamsters between 1957 and 1971, led a union which, at its height, had more than two million members. He was considered by many to be the second most powerful person in the country, after the president of the United States himself.
Hoffa had long had connections to organised crime and, in 1964, he went to prison for jury tampering. He disappeared in 1975, finally being declared legally dead in absentia in 1982. His body has never been found.
Scorsese’s film is, on face value, a whodunnit about Hoffa’s death. However, it’s about a great deal more than that.
For instance, the movie considers the 1960 US presidential election (which was won, famously, by John F Kennedy) in terms of the split between Hoffa and the mob bosses. Due to historical bad blood between himself and the Kennedy clan, Hoffa threw his support, and Teamsters money, behind the right wing Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
By contrast, the Mafia, represented by Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci), supports Kennedy; because they believe Kennedy will depose the new, anti-imperialist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba, thereby restoring Havana as a gambling centre for the Cosa Nostra.
The film is full of such fascinating historical and political details, but it employs them subtly, weaving them carefully through the fabric of a brilliantly constructed narrative. In that sense it owes a discernible debt, not only to previous Scorsese films, such as Goodfellas and Casino, but also to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.
The movie also answers emphatically the doubts that were raised prior to its release. The much-vaunted digital de-ageing of lead actors is a tremendous application of technology, but never a distraction. Acted compellingly throughout (by a cast that also includes Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin), the film is an utterly engrossing three-and-a-half hours.
Pacino is superb as Hoffa, channelling his charisma, and the working-class rage of his early life, into a cynical abuse of the power of labour. De Niro’s performance is equally impressive, culminating, ultimately, in a moving contemplation of death, memory and regret.
Fears that, with the film being produced by Netflix, Scorsese might shrink his vision are, unsurprisingly, dispelled completely. The Irishman is a visually sumptuous work of art that deserves to be seen at the cinema.