The Irishman - I doubt we will see its like again
4 out of 5
It has a great director. It has great actors. It is beautifully filmed. It has the latest de-aging wizardry from Industrial Light and Magic. It is a lesson in history. It is long. It is exhausting.
I'm aware that I'm swimming against the current when I say I cannot understand why Martin Scorsese's latest film The Irishman has been shortlisted in the Golden Globes. Yes it is good film making but did it need to be a test in endurance as well? While watching it I felt constantly reminded of Oliver Stone's 1991 epic, JFK. Indeed some of the same characters populate both productions.
The Irishman tells the story, literally, of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver of Irish descent. The film opens with him in a nursing home, telling his life story. It uses this vehicle, together with a road trip with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives to recount more of their tale and their interwoven lives. There are also flashbacks which help develop the narrative and it;s a complex narrative. It spans over sixty years of Frank's life covering his time in Italy in WWII, his involvement with The Mob, with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), his own union activities and his professional job of painting houses - a euphemism explained in the film. This story within a story is not hard to follow. There are many historical signposts to keep us grounded. Those, and the cars, the fashion, etc, all serve to identify each decade, each leap in time.
At a fan of history, I already knew most of the characters. The film itself explains in great detail who Jimmy Hoffa was and the role the Teamsters had in the US and their complex relationship with organised crime. As with all such films, the makers take some liberties, dramatise some moments and fill in the blanks as fits their narrative. There is no hero here. Sheeran's life is well told but he is not a likable character. He has few principles other than a dumb loyalty. Sometimes it's hard to read De Niro, possibly a fault in the de-aging process used, but I found him a one-note character that was at times a passenger in his own narrative.
Pacino embodies the larger than life Hoffa with gusto and, at times, an OTT performance. I imagine Martin Scorsese asking him to rein it in a bit very so often. Hoffa is a salutary lesson in how power corrupts, his own self-belief in his infallibility and he becomes blinkered to advice and to the danger he is in.
Pesci was a delight. Of all the characters, his was understated, subtle and a master-class in doing more by saying less. A nod, a twitch of the eye, a small gesture with his hand - I loved how he communicated so much. Pacino could learn something here but then again Pacino is Pacino.
Harvey Keitel and Jesse Plemons turn up as well, in lesser roles and critically underused. OSCAR winner Anna Paquin is here as well as Peggy Sheeran, Frank's daughter. I've read some reviews that claim she is underused, only has six lines of dialogue and should have more. I disagree. I think her performance was very powerful. She was the silent disapproval of her father and his methods. She disowned him after the death of JImmy Hoffa, who was like an uncle to her. Again, with a simple look, Paquin was able to convey so much. She was brilliant. Sheeran, as we see, craves her approval, her love and is rejected.
We have to talk about the de-aging process used for the stars of the film. For The Irishman, Scorsese has used a new process developed by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. It is better than the process used in other films - Marvel, Star Wars, etc. Apart from the initial shock of seeing an older De Niro morph in to a younger De Niro, I soon forgot about it and it was not a distraction for me. The technology is astounding and one wonders where it will lead. Well we already know the answer to that with James Dean about to appear in a film soon. The only incongruity is that the bodies of the actors could not be de-aged. There are some scenes where you see a younger De Niro or a younger Pesci inflicting violence on someone or even just walking up a stairs and you can tell the bodies are of older men. It's a small gripe but it pulled me out of the story a couple of times, which is never good.
While watching The Irishman, I felt like I was watching the last of its kind, a type of film-making that will soon be extinct. Scorsese struggle for years to bring this project to life. Kudos to Netflix for funding this and for making it available. I could write a lot more about The Irishman: about the wonderful costumes, set production and the wonderful cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto - but I won't.
Yes it's long. Yes it could stand to lose at least forty minutes of it's running time. Yes it flags in the final Act. Is it film of the year? No. Will it pick up awards? I have no doubt.
Watch it twice and celebrate the talent that made it. We may never see it's like again.