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CRITICAL MASS: 'The Irishman': The lies we tell ourselves

Martin Scorsese's new film is streaming on Netflix by Philip Martin | December 8, 2019 at 2:25 a.m. | Updated December 8, 2019 at 2:25 a.m.
Joe Pesci (left) and Robert De Niro act in a scene from "The Irishman." (AP)

The Irishman shouldn't be called The Irishman.

Maybe Martin Scorsese understood that because a title card reading I Heard You Paint Houses appears at both the beginning and end of his 3 1/2-hour Netflix movie. Those title cards are a nod to I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, the 2004 book by former prosecutor Charles Brandt upon which screenwriter Steve Zaillian based his Irishman script.

Maybe this signals that Scorsese would have preferred not to call the movie The Irishman, but that the title was a concession to marketers and demographers who figured I Heard You Paint Houses was a lousy name for a movie that was bound to feel like Goodfellas 2, a mafia movie that employs Scorsese regulars like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and adds Al Pacino to the mix. Maybe they worry that viewers would confuse I Heard You Paint Houses with some kind of home improvement program. Who knows?

If Netflix was going to give Scorsese a blank canvas and a blank check to do whatever he wanted to draw a bunch of new subscribers to the streaming service over the Thanksgiving holiday, well, maybe the gracious thing to do was to concede the title. (Pacino's reading of the line "I heard you paint houses," supposedly organized crime code for "I hear you murder people for money," has become the movie's money quote, its answer to Marlon Brando playing Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather saying "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.")

Brandt based his book on conversations he had with the elderly Sheeran, a Delaware Teamsters official who allegedly worked as a hitman and all-purpose thug for the Pennsylvania-based Russell Bufalino crime family from the late 1940s until he went to prison on charges of labor racketeering in 1980.

Sheeran (played by De Niro in the film) was also a close associate of Teamster International President Jimmy Hoffa, who famously disappeared in 1975. After Sheeran got out of prison, he started telling some pretty wild tales about the Hoffa murder; he alleged that Hoffa was killed at the behest of the Nixon White House and that the body would never be found. Then, he suggested he knew where the body was buried. He got a reputation as someone who was trying to parlay his close relationship with Hoffa into a book deal.

Brandt, then working as a medical malpractice attorney, first found out about Sheeran when he was still in prison, suffering from arthritis of the spine. He worked to get Sheeran a compassionate release in 1993, and apparently befriended the old mobster and took an interest in his story. Between 1999 and Sheeran's death in 2003, he recorded hundreds of interview hours with Sheeran. Three weeks before Sheeran died, Brandt videotaped him confessing to Hoffa's murder. The Irishman re-enacts Sheeran's version.

Director Martin Scorsese attends a premiere of "The Irishman" on Oct. 13 in London. (AP)
Director Martin Scorsese attends a premiere of "The Irishman" on Oct. 13 in London. (AP)

Sheeran also told Brandt he was the lone gunman who shot Joey Gallo to death in Umberto's Clam House in Manhattan's Little Italy in 1972. This has been disputed, but Sheeran's story does conform to some known facts. While the police released information that three men entered the clam house with guns blazing on the morning Gallo was killed, that may have been a cover story designed to filter out false confessions and accusations. According to this theory, it was a lone gunman who killed Gallo, a big man who the police didn't believe was Italian. It could have been Sheeran.

On the other hand, it could have been a lot of people. It could have been Carmine "Sonny Pinto" Di Biase and other members of the Colombo crime family.

Sheeran was on the FBI's initial list of suspects in the Hoffa case -- in law enforcement parlance, they "liked him for it." But there were dozens of other suspects. And over the years at least 14 people who have confessed to killing Hoffa have had their claims treated seriously by law enforcement. Some of them can't be ruled out.

The only thing that I Heard You Paint Houses proves is that Sheeran could tell a story. Or maybe that Brandt can tell a story. In the book, Sheeran confesses to war crimes committed during World War II; he implies that American GIs routinely committed atrocities such as executing prisoners. Again, there's no way to prove or disprove Sheeran's allegations.

We know about several instances where American troops murdered civilians and executed POWs and that some of the most notorious of these incidents occurred in Italy when Sheeran was there (see the 1943 Biscari massacre and the court-martials of Carmine "Sonny Pinto" Di Biase and Capt. John T. Compton, both of whom alleged that Gen. George S. Patton had instructed troops before the Sicilian invasion to take prisoners only under very limited circumstances, implying that the general expected them to be executed). Did Sheeran casually dispatch captured German soldiers after having them dig their own graves? Maybe.

And maybe he killed 25 to 30 people in the service of the Bufalino family and later Jimmy Hoffa. There's no real convincing evidence Sheeran ever killed anyone. And no one else has ever alleged that Hoffa ever ordered a hit. The man had a temper, he'd rant about having Bobby Kennedy or some other nettlesome figure killed, but it was just talk. He never followed through.

In real life, it matters whether or not Sheeran's stories are true or half-true or completely fabricated. We should strive to find out what really happened, we should try to arrive at facts upon which we agree. Fairy tales are of limited utility when trying to decide how we ought to live.

But The Irishman is a myth, and though its pop culture gravity is such that it might inevitably be received as the conventional wisdom about how these men -- these "characters" -- lived and died, Scorsese and Zaillian and De Niro and Pesci and Netflix owe no fealty to the record. They made a movie.

A movie about an old man who dies alone and frightened of the dark.

Al Pacino (from left), director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro pose for a portrait to promote their film "The Irishman." (AP)
Al Pacino (from left), director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro pose for a portrait to promote their film "The Irishman." (AP)

Let's receive Brandt and Sheeran's work as fiction. I haven't read the book, but I know the criticisms that have been leveled at it and a little bit about the world of true crime and how jealous authors can be of their pet conspiracies and theories. ("My Fat Tony was more vicious than your punk Sal the Tuna," "Charles Manson liked me better and wrote me the letters to prove it.") Sheeran likely said a lot of things that weren't true. He likely calculated that his book might be better if he were more directly involved in some of the incidents. And maybe he elided some things he considered shameful. Maybe he mis-remembered, maybe he embroidered. Let's concede that he's an unreliable narrator.

So was Holden Caulfield.

The Irishman is Frank's version, rather than Sheeran's. (Let's make a distinction between the real 6-foot-4 gangster we'll call Sheeran and Frank, the character De Niro inhabits.) Frank's story is told by a peripheral mobster who was probably never that big a deal, never the guy who made the decisions, though he was close to the people who did. He was a tool of Russell Bufalino (played with delicacy and grace by Pesci), who introduced him to the blustery, bigger-than-life Hoffa.

Frank may have had a seat at the table, especially in his recollection, but he was still a soldier, following orders the same as he did in the war. There is no moral calculus to his work; he does what his betters suggest.

He commits violence with an economic briskness, no hesitation, slaughterhouse brutal. He selects the right tool -- a .32 may be a "woman's gun," but sometimes it's right. Snap snap -- two bullets in the head, the victim slumps. No unnecessary drama, no balletic flailing or wisecracks. Scorsese isn't Quentin Tarantino, he doesn't make a party out of murder. Frank is a working man, who has discovered in himself a deep talent for unpleasant work.

Frank is allegedly in his 20s in the scenes set during the war, but though the digital de-aging works well enough as a guide to the movie's shifts back and forward in time, it gives us a thicker and more stolid young De Niro than those of us familiar with his filmography might expect.

Frank always has his old man's gait, a certain hesitant shambling air. Let's take this as the story being filtered through the old man's memory -- he's starving away in a nursing home, weeks or hours from death and thinking back on how it must or should have been.

Frank has lost all his old friends, some were shot eight times in the face in an alley in Lancaster, Pa., in 1980, but the important ones were peeled off more recently as old and pitiable figures, last seen rolling their wheelchairs around a prison yard. Frank's wives have died too. His children are estranged. His daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin, stunning in the role) hasn't spoken to him for years. She was the one member of the family who refused to pretend not to notice the way he provided for them; even as a child she caught a whiff of sulfur around "Uncle" Russell.

Frank tries to see her at her job in the bank; she won't have it. Paquin has only six lines in the movie, which has drawn some criticism similar to the sort Tarantino received for the way he used Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, but there is nothing for her to say. She looks at Frank -- she devastates him. She will not be complicit in his world of petty murder. She is of finer stuff. She is his angel and will not have it.

You could accuse Scorsese -- and De Niro and Pesci and Pacino -- of playing the hits with this one, another gangster movie, after GoodFellas and Casino and antecedents Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. (As if that's all Scorsese churns out.) You could suggest this is another breaking-in on his own kind of cinematic universe, not so different from those superhero movies he famously doesn't care that much about.

But The Irishman isn't about crime, it's not about the heists and hits. It's about the lies we tell ourselves, our equivocations and delusions. So maybe Frank is making all this up too; maybe he's re-inventing and re-interpreting his life in his last weeks or hours, scrambling to come up with a version that makes sense to himself or to the unseen interrogator out there. To that audience that might be out there.

Frank is the finisher, the one who takes the other characters off the page, out of the story, but he isn't certain this life is it. He shudders at the thought of being cremated because it's so final. He doesn't want the dirt heaped on his lifeless body, he'd rather be up in "a building" -- in a crypt. The better to rise and face a judgment he'd surely find unwelcome, and maybe even unfair, considering how he was just following orders.

Shanty Irish, a draftee, a truck driver faced with feeding a young and growing family with a limited skill set, Frank does what he could with what he has. Turn it a little the other way, let it catch the light and it becomes an American success story. Frank graduates from a Bulova wristwatch to a gold Mathey-Tissot, handed out for a lifetime of service to his Teamsters' local.

He asks the priest to leave the door cracked when he leaves. Frank doesn't want to be sealed off. He needs the leak of light and noise, the squeak and burble of the world, some evidence of stirring beyond his sad and final room. Anything not to be alone with himself in the dark.

It shouldn't have been called The Irishman. Frank is a consummate American.


Style on 12/08/2019

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