We finally got around to watching Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (all 209 minutes of it!) over two evenings on Netflix last week.
I was blown away by the extraordinarily nuanced performances of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Acting at its very best. And what a challenge for the director – imagine containing those competitive egos while blending them into a beautifully consistent whole! Scorsese succeeds brilliantly. This is probably his finest film and some of the critics read into it an autobiographical soul-searching that others equally familiar with his work may also recognize. I leave that to them.
Most of the reviews I read after the fact dwelt on the literal story line – another historical mob legend that attempts to seduce us into being implicated in the brutal misdeeds of its anti-heroes, leaving us culpable in the end of sympathy for the devil. In this case, we follow the story as told by the resident of a seniors’ home, Frank Sheeran, alias The Irishman (DeNiro), former hit man in the service of mob boss, Russell Buffalino (Pesci), and later, Teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
We know very little of Sheeran’s early childhood, but by the time he served in the Second World War he was well trained to follow orders, even to kill without questioning when commanded. His reward for supressing whatever qualms he might have over what is asked of him is the approval and apparent affection (however fragile) of his superiors and a growing proximity to, and vicarious sharing of, power along with its intangible and material benefits.
Sheeran’s story is interwoven historically with prominent murders, from the assassination of JFK and the New York mafia heavyweight, Joe Gallo, to the speculative murder of Hoffa himself. Along with the numerous killings of petty criminals, it offers a selective portrait of 60s and 70s America. The poisonous macho culture Sheeran thrives in relegates women to the sidelines and embraces other discriminatory inequities as natural context. For those of us whose lives coincided with the era in question, the tale has the ring of truth about it even when it strays into imaginative fiction. In short, it is a grand yarn and uncomfortable to contemporary sensibilities.
So, what’s my issue? There is a tendency in the critical summaries of the film to present it merely as an exotic inside exposé of the “other”, the violent criminal and corrupt element in the economic and political underworld of the time. It is “their” story, not “ours”. But, wait a minute, can we get away so easily by creating a distance from its revelations based on the extremity of the crimes portrayed alone? Are we really as unlike the malevolent characters as we choose to believe?
Surely, the point of a film such as this, with its multi-million- dollar budget, is to make us consider our own compromises and transgressions, our own failure to object where objection is called for, our failure to refuse to follow orders when morally bound to disobey? If not, why should this film resonate with us today? Why should we care about the killer, Sheeran, in the final scenes, alone, guilty and irredeemable, with an apparent dawning self-awareness at death’s door, too late to make a difference?
Returning to a favourite theme of mine, I believe we care because we are confronting an uncomfortable truth. We see in Sheeran’s excessive obsequiousness and readiness to fulfill his superior’s wishes at the expense of his soul an exaggerated reflection of our own complicity with injustice in our own world. We would prefer to bury that realization and lose ourselves in the surface action of a violent saga, so very well told and portrayed. But deep down we know we are fooling ourselves. We know, perhaps only subconsciously, that our complicity with illegitimate, undemocratic power is a key structural element of a modern corporate colonialism that devours our autonomy. We also know that without that complicity the edifice could not stand.
The burden of this responsibility weighs heavily on each of us as citizens, so much so that we have become skilled at evading it, constructing any number of rationalizations against taking action to advance democracy and counter injustice. It almost seems like the normal and rational way to live. However, the difficult path to true autonomy and maturity lies elsewhere, if we seek to follow it. Great films like The Irishman make tolerance of colonial relationships and avoidance of our responsibility for their persistence more difficult.
Vive la verité!