You may still think of Netflix as a streaming video service, but it’s really become a movie studio with most of its emphasis on episodic storytelling. It’s all about the original content, with a foundation of streaming subscribers to help pay the bills. Last year’s surprise hit Roma suggested this evolution and one of the standout films of 2019 is also from Netflix Studios: The Irishman. Directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring splendid performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, it’s a superb film.
The story revolves around mafioso Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he shares the story of his rise through the mob ranks. The film starts in the 1950’s, when opportunistic truck driver Sheeran meets Pennsylvania-based crime family head Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Bufalino likes him and soon Sheeran’s brought on to do various jobs for the family. Including murder. Sheeran becomes a hitman for the mob.
It’s not long after that when Russell introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The charismatic Hoffa’s problem is fellow Teamster Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), who keeps trying to take “Jimmy’s Union” away from him. Hoffa also finds he quite likes Sheeran and hires him on as bodyguard and enforcer.
1960 rolls around and John F. Kennedy is elected President of the United States. Problem is, the Mob helped fund Kennedy’s campaign, but once JFK names his brother Bobby Kennedy (Jack Huston) Attorney General, Bobby decides he’s going to go after Hoffa. Four years later Hoffa’s in jail, though Sheeran is still working for him as needed. A decade later, Hoffa’s out of prison, but is still raging at Provenzano. Hoffa’s gone from useful to embarassing, however, a problem for mob boss Bufalino that needs to be solved permanently. No-one’s more appropriate for the task than long-time hitman Frank Sheeran. But will Sheeran really rub out his friend because another mobster asked him to do so?
There’s an entire genre of crime films that revolve around the Mafia and mob families, and The Irishman definitely deserves to be considered one of the best. From the opening scene, it’s a gorgeous production that feels perfectly in its era, from washed out and oversaturated colors to the fashions, sets and exterior shots.
As is common with this genre, though, there are very few important roles for women. Stephanie Kurtzuba is Frank’s wife Irene, but it’s Anna Paquin who delivers the stronger performance as Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s shy daughter. Peggy forms a surprisingly close bond with Hoffa as they interact throughout the years. Paquin’s performance offers up the emotional complexity of a girl with a crush on a flashy mobster. She knows he’s not admirable but he’s charismatic, attentive and everyone else respects him. Does that make up for all the bad things that she suspects Hoffa does?
The Irishman also uses a much-discussed anti-aging technology to present De Niro and the other key actors as they would have looked decades earlier: in real life De Niro is 76 years old, Pacino is 79 and Pesci is 76. The effect is remarkably well done: At no point is the viewer pulled out of the story even as 30-40 years or more are magically removed. The effect could itself merit an Academy Award for technical achievement, it’s that good.
I’ve always been intrigued by the relationships that are the foundation of the major crime families. What makes someone decide that loyalty will override human decency, kindness and empathy? Some popular mob films skip over this human element entirely – I consider Scarface in that category, for example – while others are justifiably great movies because of their focus on, well, the family. Top of this list are Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, both widely admired within the industry and by the general public. Part of what makes The Irishman such a good film is that it too is ultimately about relationships, Sheeran with Hoffa, Peggy with Hoffa and Sheeran with his family. The film is darn long at 210 minutes (that’s 3 1/2 hours) but you’ll be riveted through the entire story. Highly recommended.
Dad at the Movies Note: This is a classic mob film so there are a lot of people yelling and swearing at each other and a lot of sudden violence. Some of the violence is shocking and grisly, as befits the story, but it does make it problematic for younger viewers. I would say older teens, yes, but younger children aren’t going to have the patience for a 3 1/2 hour movie anyway, so that works out fine. It’s not for them.