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I suppose there is still organized crime today. There’s got to be some Sopranos-esque mafioso out there who are stealing, loan-sharking, and skimming cash from legitimate businesses.
Martin Scorsese reminds us that the mafia used to be bigger and much more powerful. Sixty years ago, crime bosses were among the country’s most influential leaders. They decided elections, they infiltrated organized labor, and they even guided public policy.
“The Irishman” is an engrossing, educational film about Mafia-America in the 1960s. Scorsese has been rightly accused of glorifying organized crime in the past. Not this time.
We’ve never seen a character quite like Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. He’s a hitman for the mafia who has killed more people than he can remember. We don’t judge him, but we can never forgive him.
Sheeran fought in Anzio during WWII. There he learned Italian and a cold disregard for the value of human life.
Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) knows an asset when he sees one. He hires, protects, and befriends young Sheeran. And he uses the Irishman for his most important hits.
We’ve never seen Joe Pesci like this before. Bufalino is like the kindly old man next door: patient, reasonable, and wise. He just happens to run a business where employees have to be murdered sometimes.
“The Irishman” shows the extraordinary power of the mid-century mafia. In 1960, it rigged the election in Illinois to push John F. Kennedy over the top.
The mob bosses wanted something in return (a quid pro quo, if you will). They expected the Kennedy Administration to overthrow the communist regime in Cuba so that the bosses could get their hotels and casinos back. Scorsese claims that the Bay of Pigs was a joint effort between the mafia and feds.
When Attorney General Robert Kennedy began aggressively investigating organized crime, the partnership between the mafia and the Kennedys turned very sour.
Robert Kennedy also made life miserable for another powerful man with mob ties: Jimmy Hoffa. Al Pacino steals the show as Jimmy Hoffa, playing him as a charismatic egomaniac.
Martin Scorsese recently made a stir when he cantankerously criticized modern popular movies like the Avengers series. And I understand his perspective.
In comic book movies, the characters are rational beings who are fighting each other because they have starkly different goals. In “The Irishman,” Jimmy Hoffa and the mob bosses essentially have the same goals. But it is real life, and they are not rational people; their conflict comes from their self-destructive flaws and human frailties.
Jimmy Hoffa’s undoing is that he gets furious when people are late to meetings and that he is racist against Italians. It is darkly hilarious to see the guy who played Michael Corleone spew hurtful anti-Italian venom.
Not everyone is going to like the ending to “The Irishman,” but I did.
At the conclusion of “Goodfellas,” Henry Hill looks back fondly to his happy years as a young, cool gangster. In contrast, elderly Frank Sheeran looks back at his tough, joyless life and wonders whether anything good happened at all. He did a brutal job and all he got for his trouble was a family of daughters who want nothing to do with him.
The final scene is chilling. Sheeran sits by himself in his assisted living bedroom. The priest has just left. Sheeran asks for the priest to leave the door open a crack. And there the dying gangster waits: quietly contemplating the fires of hell that might be coming soon.
It is Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic repentance. He spent much of his career glorifying organized crime. Not this time.