Directed by Martin Scorcese
The protagonists of these films are always no-nonsense middle aged white guys, usually living on the east coast, mostly in New York. Sometimes they are based on actual real-life accounts but the lives still manage to conform to the same story structure regardless of the individual details. All the same things could be said of super-heroes who are also routinely clustered in New York. Super-heroes are are the opposite end of the same spectrum of hero worship that includes gangsters, substituting delusions of granduer with fatalism.Gangsters and super-heroes are both products of the early 20th century American culture and both emerge from immigrant communities (gangsters from the 20's and superheroes from the late 30's). Like super-heroes and pulp sci-fi, gangster and crime films are primarily power fantasies split down ethical lines of hero and anti-hero. The hero is required to remain within certain ethical parameters while the limits of the possible explained(the laws of reality), while the anti-hero is allowed to transgress while the limits of the possible contract (the reality of law).
Gangsters will lose as often and as predictably as super-heroes will be victorious. Neither character is implicitly better than the other, as both exist within pre-defined limits to "satisfy a specific set of demands".
Does "The Irishman" have to be original or unique to its genre be a good movie? No, not necessarily. The film does need to be novel and interesting if it wants to hold our attention for its excessive run-time. It has to be new to hold a new audience (not the audiences of or in their 70's). The film struggles right away from its historical fatalism, we know Shereen will kill Hoffa, so nothing that happens between the two has any element of surprise.
A tragedy requires a little greatness to begin with, and though voice over insists Hoffa is bigger than the Beatles and Elvis, this is never backed up or explained by anything in the film. Who are the teamsters and what do they do? Who is Hoffa and what does he do? Frank's daughter gives a general overview of some of the labour movement's accomplishments, but we don't get an understanding of Hoffas specific contributions. The union continues while he is in prison, and we don't get a sense of the union ending or changing after his death, so we don't understand Hoofa's relevance. The film fails to communicate why Hoffa is so vital. He insists it's his union, but this never means anything beyond egotism. The film has time to flesh this out, but doesn't.
There is a film coming out called "Three Christs", about three men in an insane asylum each claiming to be Jesus. "The Irishman" does not mention that other criminals have also confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa, leaving us with Shereen's story as it's gospel. This shoddy storytelling at best and unethical film-making at worst.
For Frank to be an unreliable narrator the audience should have some sense of discrepancy (the only reason I know this about Shereen's story comes from outside research and not anything within the text of the film). Like "Zero Dark Thirty" this film is just going for the most exciting version of events with no real interest in history or films responsibility to it. It is the film makers who are not reliable not the narrator. So let's dismiss the historical aspects of the film and the genre elements and just talk about its main character and only POV Frank Shereen.
Frank is not an enjoyable person to watch onscreen he isn't funny or charismatic like the leads of "Casino" or "The Wolf of Wallstreet". He doesn't feel any kind of regret or remorse or even self-awareness like "Raging Bull", and so we are left with a sociopathic goon really desperate to impress other sociopaths. Unpleasant characters are nothing new (especially for Scorcese who has more unlikable leads than otherwise) and can be fascinating, but sticking with them for this amount of time is something new, and when the ending is an especially forgone conclusion (the death of Hoffa and fall of Frank) in the gangster genre where the fall from grace is always a forgone conclusion, it goes from a challenging experience to an unpleasant chore. This is also because Frank lacks agency as a character.
De-aging never makes actors look as they did when they were their IRL age, instead it makes them look like vampires who have fallen behind on their feeding and begun decaying into waxy mummies.
"The Irishman" compounds this because its elderly actors now hunched and paunched by time, do not change their physical movements to match their younger selves, and so we again have old men walking around in the flesh-masks of their younger selves and doing so awkwardly. Casting younger actors might have given some spark to this film and connected it to modern audiences and younger viewers but instead we got unsympathetic old men and their grotesque unwatchable younger selves. Tell me Deniro's face doesn't look glued on below.
Scorcese can keep pretending that its Marvel's fault or Harry Potter's fault that no one wants to see this film or why those who did watch it, but didn't enjoy it feel some type of way, but there are multiple problems with this movie that can be found in the text of the film and not the surrounding film culture. Some may genuinely love this movie but I imagine others are defending it out love, loyalty, and dare I say it, fandom for Scorcese and what he now represents as self appointed defender of the autuers. Scorcese's Stans will ignore any evidence that modern audiences just aren't that into mediocre mafiosos anymore.
“The function of the persistence of the white angel archetype (the same as white saviour) in film is to mythologize and romanticize whiteness throughout a history in which it had no (heroic) part,”....
He goes on to explain how the archetype soothes white guilt while also consolidating economic and social power.
…He argues that when the former (white saviors) feels outmoded, Hollywood flocks to the latter as an alternative way to re-center whiteness.
The fascinating thing is that white devil narratives seek out exceptional white criminals in the same way that white saviour narratives look for an exceptional Black man to warm the bigoted heart of both a lead character and the audience.
“I would argue that white male supremacy already exists not because “white people are the best at everything,” as Nance, playing devil’s advocate, puts it, but because society must ensure they succeed at everything – in movies or real life."
In Nance's video essay this critique begins with "Birth Of A Nation" and extends through "Breaking Bad" and the election of Donald Trump. Damon Lindelof's Watchmen series has also been brilliantly exploring these same connections between white supremacy and hero worship in American media. It's the first piece of american media to depict "the tulsa massacre" of 1921, connecting America's forgotten past to its current concerns and phobias, using the super-hero mask as metaphor for hidden history.
I'm really hoping Scorcess'es next project "Killers Of The Flower Moon" about a series of murders amidst the Osage native american community in the 1920s, will be something more than a white savior film focusing Leonardo Dicaprio and again Robert Deniro, but...."it is what is is".
Films like "25th Hour" explore the consequences of criminal life without glamorizing it, while "The Laundromat" finds a way to explore the complex of modern cyber-crime and political corruption by de-centralizing its storytelling and focusing on the victims. "The Irishman" tries to celebrate the mobs importance to American history its impact on labor unions, wars, and assassinations, and uses its sad old man card to distance itself from accusations of outwardly celebrating murders. There was some argument when "Wolf Of Wall Street" came out about whether it was satire or celebration. I think its clear now that it was the former. Follow the money.
Scorcesse like Speilberg once had a talent for walking the line between historical drama Oscar bait and popcorn genre flick. This was a recognition that within the world of cinema there are different audiences, and that knowing how to appeal to different groups was a strength not a weakness. Not everyone wants to sit on Joe Pesci's and hear stories about "wise guys".
Scorcese is right to compare Marvel to a theme park, because people have to leave their houses to visit a theme park. Theme parks are also places that change as you age. The body reacts more positively to extreme movement and motion as a young person than as an adult, but this isn't because the roller coasters aren't sophisticated enough now that your older, its because your body has become more sensitive, fragile, and delicate. As we get older our tastes change, and this is fine, but if we cling too much to nostalgia and loyalties to things that no longer exist, like Frank we cease to grow.
The theme park that is cinema now has longer lines for its roller coasters than its vintage haunted houses, but its nothing to fear. The technology has changed, and the older classical attractions haven't quite caught up, but rather than de-aging themselves in a sad bid to remain relevant they should make use of younger actors (and maybe marginalized peoples) to provide fresh perspectives. This kind of changing of the guard used to be challenge to film-makers to re-examine themselves and their relationship to the zietgiest, but increasingly artists like politicians are just doubling down on their old ideas instead of coming up with new ones.
Scorcesse tried to experiment with the CGI tech in "the Irishman", just as he tried 3d with "Hugo", but it may be too little too late. Technology will always change and this will inevitably effect art for better and worse in ways we can't always predict. Compared to Holy Herndon's excellent Twitter essay on the future of AI in music, debating about which movies are "real art" feels like fighting the last war.
Their experiment has been successful, but they also had the advantage of a fan base going back to the 1940s. Their idea was not new either, as Orson Welles originally tried make a live action version of "The Shadow" radio-play which he also voiced, and eventually gave up to make "Citizen Kane".
Welles realized the cross-over potential and new media appeal of adapting a pre-existing hero from one medium to another when cinema was still in its infancy. As with many things he was a man ahead of his time. Somewhere in the multiverse is a world where all the techniques of Kane went into "The Shadow", and the entire history of cinema is different.
It highlights Scorcesse's lack of interest in nonwhite male characters, particularly women (to the detriment of the films emotional core). It fails to live up to the shoddy criterion Scorcesse just laid out in his own Op Ed about what qualifies as cinema, lacking risk, lacking human emotions (like remorse, love, or joy), or characters who grow and change in any discernable way. The film is as Scorcesse described super-hero films another in series of "variations on a finite number of themes.". Usually a genre is fully formalized once it's codiefed enough for a successful parody, which puts the gangster genre's death date in 1995's "Mafia!"?
Scorcesse is a great film-maker, "you can see the talent up there on the screen", but simply being an artist is not a guarantee of creating great art. This movie is an example of a talented artist resting on their laurels and doing what comes easily to them.
There is a good film buried somewhere in here but it should have been edited, and earlier in Scorcesse's career it would have been. As it is this is a Scorcesse B-Side. If your a crime fiction fan there are plenty of Marvel style Ester eggs to follow, but for your average film goer, there is very little fresh material to make the run time worth the investment. Danny Devito and David Mammet already made a movie called "Hoffa" in the early 1990's and this mostly covers the same ground (including the "revelatory" Kennedy stuff).
I've yet to read any positive review more substantial than "Isn't getting old sad?". I think that question depends on the quality of live you've lead. I cared more about the dead old man at the center of "Knives Out" from his few minutes on screen than I cared about Frank who I spent hours with. Frank Sheereen is just not interesting enough of a character to warrant this much celluloid and neither are his "alternate facts". "The Irishman" is the same old gangster shit with a sloughing CGI make-over, and chances are if you've seen one car bomb you've seen em all.