By John Kendall Hawkins
“He could see it comin’ through the door as he lifted up his fork.”
Bob Dylan, “Joey” from Desire (1976)
Thirty-five years ago, Sergio Leone’s long, brooding masterwork, Once Upon A Time in America, was released and received mixed popular and critical responses (depending upon which version was watched — the long European version or the much shorter American version). Like his previous award-winning Civil War saga, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 18 years earlier, themes of brotherhood and betrayal, the fragility of civilization, and the ultimate moral bankruptcy of pursuing money at the cost of humanity.
The one Leone gem ends in a graveyard showdown — imagine the greed implicit in knowing that a pot of gold is buried under one of those graves at, say, Arlington Cemetery and you stand there with a spade determined to dig up every grave to find it; the other ending, a black Mack garbage truck, an implied suicide, and 35 years of shared memories laid to waste. A young Robert DeNiro, playing an old jaded man, looks on, and you can see it sinking in — in to you, the viewer, an epiphany you don’t even want to think about, amplified, in each film, by an almost-cruel Ennio Morricone soundtrack. DeNiro looking to where friend James Wood used to be: You talkin’ to me?
As I watched an old DeNiro, playing an old Frank Sheeran, at home processing his betrayal of old friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) — the betrayal amplified by Peggy, his knowing and unforgiving daughter — in Martin Scorcese’s new Netflix film, The Irishman, I remembered that face stare after the garbage truck receding into the darkness. Sheeran had lost his best friend and daughter forever in one action, the murder of Hoffa, a psychic catastrophe so profound that, though a lapsed Catholic, he seeks out confessional absolution — in the end, a stand-up guy kneeling before the ear of an inscrutable God. The mystery of faith. Why have you forsaken me.
That look of unbearable sin, coming after more than three and a half hours of rapt viewing, opened up the caskets of a lot of old memories, related tangentially to the film’s themes. I recalled an early childhood growing up in Boston, the hoodlum “Whitey” Bulger calling the shots in the Irish-American neighborhoods of Charlestown and Southie, depicted in the media like the Nicholson character from The Departed, and his brother, Billy, calling the shots, and packing the groceries, in the Massachusetts senate. There was the morning in the late 60s when, a la Stand By Me, I discovered a bullet-riddled body in the mud behind a bar, a target of the city’s gangland violence, as I walked up Bunker Hill Street to school.
After moving, I remembered briefly attending the Michaelangelo school, not far from that beacon of revolution, the North Church, in the Italian-American neighborhood known as the North End. A kid in one class, a clown, danced around like James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and reminded me years later of Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. Dove la biblioteca? I repeated, in my best Brad Pitt accent, when my sexy teacher said, “Ripeti dopo di me,” and threw the book at my accent with those deep brown eyes. They were coming by land and sea.
Occasionally, I played street hockey there, in a playground, next to the garage where the Great Brink’s Job was done in 1950, until I wore out my welcome, by returning a hip check up against a chain link fence, delivered by a bully-in-the-making, who thought he was a Bruins enforcer. Turned out he wasn’t, but hadn’t gotten the message. At least, that’s what I tell myself, and what good’s memory if it doesn’t flatter. Rhetorical.
The Irishman is a movie about storytelling, myths, history and memory. Like Leone’s Once Upon A Time, which is based on Harry Grey’s autobiography, The Hoods, which chronicles the doings of Jewish mobsters in Manhattan during the Prohibition, The Irishman is adapted from a nonfiction account of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran’s time with Jimmy Hoffa, titled I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. These emphases on Jewish and Irish psyches is a welcome change from the long-stereotyped “thinking” Italian-American hoodlums are dressed in on screen. And Bogart, Cagney, Edward G., and John Garfield drilled each other with cardboard gats throughout my childhood. Still, they could be nasty.
But The Irishman is a story within a story within a story, and then some: There’s Scorcese’s tale to us, the viewer (with our unique responses); there’s Sheeran’s reluctant confessions to Brandt (for a book) and to a priest (for his soul); there’s the memory of confessionals as places of stories that priests (mere humans) must hear and collect (how did they do it?) and absolve (for a week, until the sinner and his voice returns with more); there’s the narrative tension of mafia omerta juxtaposed with Jimmy Hoffa’s bluster, and Sheeran’s agony of being that tension’s middleman; there’s the story of what criminals tell their families and the implicit weight of those stories carried out into the “real” world by the ones they love; intertextuality meets intratextuality; and, there’s the story of all these old actors reuniting for this film, like family.
Early in The Irishman you could almost believe you’re watching an Oliver Stone film, as a case is made that the truth of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is finally being revealed: Mobsters delivered the Illinois vote Kennedy needed in 1960 to win the presidential election, and when his brother, Robert, the attorney general, went after mobsters responsible for his victory, something had to be done. We see these same mobsters, working with the CIA and Cuban exiles in Miami, working to overthrow Castro, to make Cuba safe for casinos and capitalism again, angrily blaming Kennedy for the lack of air support that would have made the Bay of Pigs invasion a success. Something had to be done.
But then you realize Scorcese’s just messing with us, reminding us: It’s only a movie. It didn’t really happen that way. Kennedy had enough electoral college votes to win the presidency– without Illinois. So he owed the mobsters nothing on that account. And according to some plausible historical accounts, regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion (Ike’s idea), Kennedy refused to risk escalating World War 3 we’re in, from a cold war to a hot one by bombing Cuba, so no air support.
And this, too, is just a story — my take on what Scorcese was doing with a screenplay adapted from a book, written by a prosecutor, with an agenda, based upon the ‘confession’ of a conflicted hitman telling tales, drawn from omerta hearsay infused with goombah mysticism. It’s only a movie, but Scorcese is an old man looking back, like DeNiro, at a garbage truck receding, carrying away the past, and you the viewer, if old enough to remember, stuck with that WTF feeling. The nostalgia for a nostalgia you can no longer feel.
Along with DeNiro and Pacino, The Irishman features Joe Pesci (playing a marvelously subdued mobster, Russell Bufalino), Harvey Keitel (mobster Angelo Bruno), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), and Ann Paquin (as grown up daughter Peggy Sheeran, who does an excellent job expressing her rage and disgust at what her father represents). The film purports to tell us, finally and definitively, who killed Jimmy Hoffa. But it’s only a story that may or may not be true. Charles Brandt, while convinced that Sheeran killed Hoffa, spends some time in his Afterword and Epilogue somewhat defensively looking for corroborating evidence that his confession was true. Scorcese does the same. I Hear You Tell Stories. Despite Scorcese’s adaptation of Brandt’s account, there are alternative views out there.
The Irishman is about the fall of Jimmy Hoffa; about his charisma and power over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and, about how he wielded enormous influence by using the union’s pension fund to get things done, such as start-up money for Vegas casinos. But Scorcese’s Hoffa has serious animus in his dealings with mobsters who con, blackmail and extort their way into power plays. Jimmy believes he’s paid his dues in the Just Is system; he’s climbed to the top through will and skill, without compromising. Pacino plays Hoffa as a tragic figure, full of hubris, going up against the underworld deus ex machina, also uncompromising. Something had to give.
For all intents and purposes, Hoffa effectively disappeared from public consciousness 52 years ago, when he was sentenced to 14 years for jury tampering, fraud and bribery, and that disappearance has become, like Who Killed JFK?, bigger than the man himself. The charges against Hoffa don’t have a lot of moral or operational separation from the mobsters he cinematically despises. Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971 (arguably, because Hoffa’s unions supported his presidential candidacy in 1968), but he was forbidden from pursuing a return to his throne before 1980. By then, it wasn’t his union anymore. He just wouldn’t accept it. But so what. For a young Netflix generation, Hoffa’s rage against the dying of his light only works as Story. We postmoderns can’t relate to it as reality.
And yet, since the days when Robert Kennedy made the dissolution of gangsters his priority, beginning in the 60s under JFK, there seems to have been a steady decline in their influence, or else they’ve changed their game. By the time Frank Sheeran took out “Crazy Joe” Gallo, while he was lifting up his fork at Umberto’s Clam Bar in New York on April 7, 1972 (depicted in The Irishman, and deepening my understanding of the Dylan song), mobsters were already at each others’ throats, having more than their usual intramural gunplay fun, thanks, in part, to the turmoil caused by the passage of the RICO Act, signed into law in 1970 by none other than Richard Nixon.
In 1984, then U.S. Attorney Rudy Guliani went Eliot Ness (channeling RFK) and, setting up a 450-officer task force, went after the so-called “Commission” — five families, based in New York, in charge of organized crime throughout America, including Lucchese, Gambino, Columbo, Bonanno and Genovese. Many high profile arrests and convictions were painted across the pages of the press, some more lurid than others. Guliani even claimed he had the RICO goods on the Clintons. Such RICO convictions paved the way for Guliani’s mayoral ascension. Once his “stoic calm” during the collapse of his city, all around him, on 9/11, made him a hero (somehow) and he was dubbed “America’s mayor,” his reputation was bound to free fall when he became Donald Trump’s legal mouthpiece.
Jimmy Hoffa wasn’t around to watch the collapse of union power in America in the 80s. The idea of “union” seemingly crash-landed in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan, former head of the Screen Actors Guild, fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike illegally. Rather than planes falling out of the sky, Americans saw Reagan replace the lot of them with new controllers immediately and without much fuss: bringing ka-chingaling on the political cachet front for the newly-elected Reagan, who seemingly manhandled the Left in one fell swoop.
As financial magazine The Motley Fool, put it a few years back:
When Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild walkout in 1952, roughly a third of the entire American workforce belonged to a labor union. Today, about 12% of the workforce is unionized. Corporate profits are at an all-time postwar high as a percentage of GDP, and wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen to an all-time low….
About the only place unions seem to have any real clout any more is in professional sports. Fiscal conservatives have been calling the shots since Reagan.
I’m haunted by DeNiro’s face, as it watches things recede and disappear, not sure if the quiet despair is his projection as an actor, or my projection, looking back at increasingly fathomless memories, as I grow old. The Irishman seems a kind of swan song, not just for the talented ensemble — Scorcese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel — but for looking at the past. It’s over. America is no place for old white men. No value judgement: Just a fact.
But more, we ignored Ike’s warning: he’d have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist if he were alive today, saying the same thing. The MIC has won: we are in a virtual coup, with so much of the budget (and so much of that secret) delivered to the Masters of War in endless battle against Terror (Man’s oldest nemesis), and the predators of Wall Street becoming the eyes on the pyramid schemes depicted on every dega dollar. Now there is the Deep State that Snowden says controls us all. We have a president, likened to a mobster (and familiar with mobsters depicted in Scorcese’s film), and once having been sued under RICO for a scam. He is half-assedly befriended and legally protected by Rudy Guliani.
If there’s a black lining to this silver screen gem, it’s that this might end up being one of Donald Trump’s favorite films, despite the fact that it doesn’t feature him in any way. But he’ll be able to read between the lines and express fond reminiscing about broking power, him and Rudy working the postmodern mob.
But Lo! Lady Liberty with her torch was there a moment ago, but disappeared into that black Mack truck passing by, out of which no light can escape.