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The Irishman

01 Dec

The Irishman—direct by Martin Scorsese. Crime Drama. 3 hours 29 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: An agèd Mob hitman/thug/bodyguard recalls his professional life as the favorite sponsee/liaison of two big business potentates, one a union leader, one a gangland don.

Robert DeNiro plays the leading, title, and starring role here, Frank Sheeran. What he learns from the first mentor, the don, played by Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, don of the Buffalo Cosa Nostra, is mastery of keeping the peace both in himself and between warring factions. What he learns from the second, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the world and played by Al Pacino, is to urge such peacekeeping on his volatile boss every minute of the day.

The picture unfolds at 3 ½ hours but never stalls, never bores, never repeats.

It is essentially a string trio for viola, with Pacino playing the violin, Pesci playing the cello, and De Niro the viola. Despite its chamber-work-compression of instruments, its scale is widespread in its localities, while remaining detailed in those settings. It holds forth all over the country on the one hand, and on the other it counts on intimate closeups of the three stars. We range from the gigantic to the particular with no conflict of style. This is because the development of relations is forefront at all times and throughout.

As to the acting, that is another story. Pacino and DeNiro never play their characters. Despite the blue eyes, you never believe De Niro’s character’s background is Irish/Swedish from Pennsylvania. You never believe Pacino’s character’s background is Irish/German midwestern. Both of them present as lower-class New York City Italian first-generation, with accents and mannerisms to match.

As such, each of them uses the same acting techniques and styles they have developed and employed for upwards of 50 years. No concession is granted to the parts they play in terms of nature, class, region, or background. This has partly to do with their understanding of the limitations and securities of their basic techniques, and partly to do with the denial of Method Acting Training to emphasize language or voice training of any kind for actors.

On screen, De Niro and Pacino are not like Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. For such is not within their talent and interest. Rather Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa are like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. So Pacino and De Niro in those parts is not a matter of acting at is greatest reaches. It is a matter of casting. Their performances present zero surprises. As character actors give Pacino and De Niro an F. As movie star actors give them an A+.

For they engage their roles, if not their characters, full bore. As an audience you fully set aside their lacks, overcome as you are by the strength of their technique, its torrent and delicacy. Pacino thrusts his Hoffa forward with every eccentricity at his muster, and you go along with it because it is required for us to witness Hoffa as not just difficult, but so difficult as to be impossible, and so impossible as to be doomed. This sort of acting is the hand Pacino has dealt himself under the table for years.

Right before our eyes, likewise, De Niro, ever since The Deerhunter, has lodged into his face that rictus which he wishes us to be taken for stress, eyes aglare with threat, corners of the mouth drawn down. Nonetheless, it provides his Frank Sheeran with the cover and restraint necessary for the crises he faces, and it gives to his loyalty the black shiny surface of honest patent leather. It also gives him the cover to perform that impressive phone conversation, executed quite properly with the trick of making it hard for him to breathe. Struggling for breath would happen to any of us thus circumstanced, the whole body almost closing down to survive what against its own nature he must avow in that call.

Of the three, Joe Pesci’s playing as the Godfather, god-father, and god/father is different from the volatility one associates with Pesci’s work in the past. None of that former crazy, wild, out-of-control rashness is on view. Every hint of danger and unpredictability is reduced to just one wild horse in the corral instead of a herd of them. Careful, just, reasonable is what he gives us, and his is the best performance of the three, because not only are the character and actor Italian so his physical metaphor works, but his conviction, common sense, and kindness have the enormous carrying power of the subtle. You look into his eyes, and you understand everything his character does and must do. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino does nothing out of evil, cruelty or meanness, but only for what is best for business, that is to say for the protection and benefit of the largest group of people.

Indeed, you might say that The Irishman is the secret files of the personnel departments of two big businesses. You might think this would be tedious. It is fascinating, because of Scorsese’s treatment of the material, his attention to detail and to his sticking to what he knows best—and his ear for it.

The principal defect of the picture and what accounts for its length lies in the failure of the script to distinguish what hit-men do. They eliminate people in advance of or in response to revenge. Or they eliminate people who are in the way. We do not see this distinction made in the film because so much attention is given to revenge-hits, whereas Hoffa’s disappearance was an instance of the latter. He was a mad dog threatening a whole village. He was in the way.

For, towards his end, Hoffa threatened Union hegemony and the conduct of its vast pension funds. He didn’t see what a threat he was both to union business and to Mafia business or recognize what the Mafia would do about it.

Big business directs the story as a whole. But The Irishman is a story worked out in terms of the relations between its three main characters. All three have big hearts. At the end, the business story and the plot of these big-hearted relationships converge to make the crisis. But it stops short. The crisis is never developed.

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

Is is kinder to put your belovèd ailing dog out of its misery or should you let unfriendly disease slay it?

Nonetheless, while a dog may be man’s best friend, your best friend is not a dog.

Can you murder your best friend?

Is it better that Frank murder Hoffa because, according to the code, it is more loving, it is more honorable, it is more loyal?

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

As the servant of two masters, will De Niro remain loyal to his best friend, Pacino, or will he remain loyal to his father, Pesci?

Can you actually hold a gun and deliver two shots to the back of your best friend’s skull?

Can you murder your best friend?

The writer and director have not seen this complex matter plain. And without the focus of a great confrontation scene fully mounted, the film lacks a KO and spreads itself into 3½ hours.

And, without it, The Irishman falls short of the great category of a high tragedy which is its proper sphere.

(Although, if it had attainted high tragedy, it is possible that De Niro does not have the talent to perform it.)

Still the film is worth seeing, because every scene, every shot is choice. If Scorsese has failed to tell his drama well, Scorsese has not failed to tell his story well.

As for the rest, Anna Paquin is telling as the daughter who sees through the lie of Frank’s life. She’s underused in the part, which would be the central for the scenes left out.

And it’s lovely to see Harvey Keitel at work again.

The movie is beautifully cast, produced, acted, and set.

Who does not bow before editor Thelma Schoonmaker has neither manners nor sense.

Also praise be to those who aged and youthened the three men’s faces as time planed or chiseled them. None of this bothered me or detoured my attention. I invite everyone reading to a like infatuation.

For Scorsese has not just dealt a hand of cards. He has dealt four hands. And they are beautiful, as one by one he plays them out, card by card, before our eyes so privileged to see them.

 
 
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