Since the film runs almost three and a half hours, without an intermission, Scorsese spoke for only about a minute and a half. He told us that he first experienced the Castro Theater in 1971, with a screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. He was glad we’ll be seeing it on the big screen (it’s a Netflix film), and that it “took many years to come together.”
Then we got to watch The Irishman. I’m giving it an A.
Although the film is long, set over multiple decades, and is based on historical people and events, it doesn’t quite feel like an epic. I’m not sure why; perhaps it’s because it isn’t shot like an epic. This is not a problem; it’s just another kind of a very good movie.
And as with all narrative films based on history, this should be considered a work of fiction.
Robert De Niro, in his first performance for Scorsese since 1995, plays Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title. His Irish ancestry is rarely mentioned. Most of the people he works with are Italian Americans; some of them are Jews. Like his Italian co-workers, he’s Catholic, and in some ways, this is very much a Catholic movie…especially near the end.
We see the story through Frank’s the eyes. Now an old man in a retirement home and a wheelchair, he tells us the story. His friends have all died; a few of them by old age.
Frank’s a World War II veteran who fought in Italy under General Patton. Killing isn’t a big thing for him. He goes from truck driver to mob enforcer. He works under Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who soon becomes a father figure. The Bufalino gang come off as a tight brotherhood of friends who protect and love each other. Of course, Frank occasionally must kill one of these friends. Among them are “Crazy” Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) – the subject of Bob Dylan’s ballad, Joey. [Note: I have corrected this paragraph.]
This is the sort of life where turning on your car’s ignition is a frightful experience.
Of all the historical criminals in this film, there’s only one household name – Jimmy Hoffa. An almost unrecognizable Al Pacino plays the role as a dangerously mercurial businessman and thug, flipping from affection to anger. He truly believes that the Teamsters Union is his own private property. Frank becomes Hoffa’s best friend and confident.
Frank suffers for his career. His daughter sees his violence at a young age, and that relationship never heals.
Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian provide The Irishman with a cool, dark humor. The packed audience laughed heartily at the often gruesome gags. And as you’d expect with Scorsese, period-appropriate songs not only bring you into the period, but also let you enjoy the music.
The film’s biggest weakness: No intermission.
The Irishman‘s brief theatrical run opens Friday. By the end of the month, it will be streaming on Netflix.