The Irishman: Scorsese's decision to cast charismatic stars as gangsters compromises film's politics

MK Raghavendra

Dec 09, 2019 09:35:05 IST

Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman, which has been eagerly awaited by his admirers, gives us a special opportunity to understand his methods as a filmmaker. For some of his key actors, it is their swan-song.

Scorsese has a bewildering variety of films to his credit, including documentaries about musicians (The Last Waltz, Rolling Thunder Revue), studies of pathological loners (Taxi Driver, King of Comedy) quasi-horror (Shutter Island) and even children’s films (Hugo), but he will perhaps be best remembered for his gangster films based on the stories of actual criminals connected to the mob like Goodfellas (1990) and, now, The Irishman. His latest is based on a book about a mafia hitman named Frank Sheeran, which was titled I Heard You Paint Houses, code for ‘I heard you kill people’, where paint implies blood spatter as a result of bullets fired into a body.

 The Irishman: Scorseses decision to cast charismatic stars as gangsters compromises films politics

It features aging stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel in key roles, using graphics to make them look much younger in segments pertaining to the earlier careers of the protagonists. The central character in the film is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), an actual leader of a truckers' union in the 50s and 60s (he was President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters between 1957 and 1971) who was also mixed up in organised crime, served time for fraud and disappeared suddenly in 1975, and officially pronounced dead seven years later. The film takes the viewpoint of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was Hoffa’s bodyguard, beginning in his old age when Sheeran is confined to a nursing home, the rest of the story revealed through flashbacks.

When the film begins, Sheeran is a truck driver transporting meat who is befriended by a Philadelphia gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran has been routinely stealing the contents of the truck he is driving and the lawyer who gets him off is Bufalino’s cousin. The fact that Sheeran does not talk and implicate the others means he can be trusted. Sheeran begins his climb upwards by doing hits for the Bufalino family and is later introduced by Russell Bufalino to Jimmy Hoffa, and becomes his trusted bodyguard. The various dramatic bits in the film include Hoffa’s tussle with the Kennedys until John Kennedy’s assassination, his rivalry with Tony Provenzano, a rival union leader, Hoffa serving his jail term and conflict with Provenzano inside as well, his coming out to find that his place as President of the Teamsters’ Union has been usurped by his protégé Frank Fitzsimmons and he cannot get back into it, his intractability when asked to withdraw gracefully from the scene and his eventual killing by Sheeran, the man he most trusted, on behalf of the crime families. To convey a sense of the smaller players, we are introduced to them over numerous episodes with a legend on the screen announcing their eventual fates – usually their murders.

The Irishman is a ‘political film’ in the sense that it is about the control of resources/territories by vested interests fighting each other and being prosecuted by the law. But the fact is that we get little sense of the actual politics involved, how people maneuver their ways into power. The more important factor in such maneuvering is not the personality or charisma of the player, but the alignment of strategies and opportunities. If one looks at politics within a standard organisation, it proceeds by identifying allies, placing acolytes in key positions and dispensing favours selectively so as to build up support for oneself and gaining control, even while seeming to work for the general good without any kind of prejudice. Politically powerful people do not need charisma – which is generally directed towards an undifferentiated public – and they dominate by outmaneuvering rivals. Amit Shah would be the typical example of a successful politician, rather than Narendra Modi, since his power is based more on his manipulations than his charismatic appeal.


American cinema has generally not been able to deal with politics the way it is actually played, and political cinema has used charismatic stars in key roles. The Irishman is no exception and one has only to look at what the real Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran and Russel Bufalino looked like – in contrast to those who play them in the film – to understand that these faces are not those of charismatic stars but of people who got the work done, somehow. American cinema uses stars as ‘individualities’ that enable audience members to project themselves onto the stars. One look at the actual criminals – about who The Irishman is – has one wondering why anyone should ‘project themselves’ onto such people.

Gangsters and hitmen are not towering figures with whom one might want to identify, but De Niro and Pacino are from a school of acting that promotes identification with the lead character, whatever he or she may represent. Actors who play these characters are invited to dig into their own personal experiences and feelings to ‘inhabit’ the roles they are playing, make themselves emotionally expressive. This would be like an Indian actor who is to play the counterfeiter Abdul Karim Telgi being asked to use his personal emotions to ‘inhabit’ the role. Few people really care about what emotions Telgi felt when he printed stamp paper; what interests them is how a former vegetable vendor got such things done, who his secret associates were and the weakness of the system that allowed him to function for so long. It is the same with Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran, but that is evidently not the way film stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino interpret their roles.

Scorsese is one of America’s most respected filmmakers and his career is closely associated with the lead stars in this movie, as well as Leonardo di Caprio. Pesci, being an actor who plays character types, is the least well-known among them, having even played the villain in minor films like Home Alone, but in every Scorsese film he has appeared in – Goodfellas, Casino and Raging Bull – he has still upstaged the leading star. In Raging Bull, De Niro gives us one of his most celebrated roles, but one does not get a comprehensive grasp of the protagonist Jake LaMotta or what drives him. We are more enthralled by De Niro the star being electrifying. He put on tens of kilos for the role but only ended up looking like a swollen puppet. Joe Pesci, in contrast, is completely understandable as Jake LaMotta’s brother Joey. This is also true of The Irishman where De Niro is completely miscast but Pesci is always spot-on; having a charismatic leading star playing a small-time criminal is evidently a horrendous piece of miscasting. The film proceeds on the premise that the star appeal of Al Pacino and De Niro is indispensable to it; why else would a director cast stars long past their prime in the roles of younger men and use computer graphics to make them fit (‘de-aging’)?

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American cinema’s use of the charismatic male star works best in genre cinema like westerns, noir films and musicals because genre films purvey mythologies rather than explore social reality.
As an instance the western focused on the mythology connected with the origins of the American state and used the star John Wayne effectively. The Irishman may be a ‘gangster film’ but it is not genre fiction (like The Godfather); it is rather an actual account of real people who wielded political power in the 50s and 60s, and Jimmy Hoffa is therefore different from Michael Corleone. Its inordinate length is also on account of it trying to incorporate a great deal of the actual American history of the period. If promoting political understanding had been the intent, it would have been more intelligent for the director to use non-stars instead of De Niro and Al Pacino in key roles. The stars, as may be expected, draw attention only to themselves without making us understand anything of how unions were once run, or why there was an association between the truckers’ unions and organised crime.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2019 14:05:56 IST