Monday, 20 January 2020

Movie review: The Irishman, dir Martin Scorsese (2019)

It’s very odd because I saw this on Netflix a month after reading a novel that covers similar ground. There’s even a nod to Mailer in the film, when Frank Sheeran is watching E Howard Hunt and Modene Murphy on TV as they sit in a Congressional hearing, JFK’s and Frank Giancana’s girlfriend seated among the spectators with Hunt, a CIA operative and a novelist, asking questions.

The length of Scorsese’s film mirrors the length of Mailer’s novel (at 1400 pages, the book rivals the film’s three hours and twenty minutes), so right there is another echo. A challenge absent in the novel but present for the filmmakers, is to make their actors credible for the whole period covered by the chronology – from the 1940s to the 1990s – so a good deal of the effort needed to sustain the film’s gravitas is due to makeup artists and the prosthetics department.

While the CIA sits at the core of Norman Mailer’s novel, at the centre of the film is the Mob for which the Irishman of the title works (initially) as a hitman and dogsbody. The entire film is focalised through Frank’s character. Robert De Niro plays him with panache, his wistful eyes and crooked, tense smile communicating some of the pathos inherent in the story of his life. Also good are Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, the unionist, and Joe Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino.

With its reliance on the idea of loyalty this is largely a movie about men, but women are not entirely absent. Lucy Gallina does a good job playing Sheeran’s daughter Peggy when she is a girl. She is a foil for his hubris and, like a ghost, Anna Paquin, who plays Peggy as a young woman, haunts the finale.

It’s an historical drama that uses the life of Hoffa to furnish it with plot devices. Hoffa’s disappearance forms a major point of articulation for the entire film, which is also an homage to Tarantino. Plenty of clever-but-plain shooting and also evocative dialogue of a type made popular by ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).

The cinematography is very good, with the director getting the camera to interrogate space with long panning and tracking shots, some of which involve a 180-degree turn. This movement, or looping back, is a kind of leitmotif mirroring the story’s structure, as it asks us to interrogate the past afresh, looking not at what we have been told was important but, instead, at new evidence that turns the focus on an entirely different cast of characters.

A small passenger aircraft is brilliantly deployed as a metaphor for life. As it touches down on a runway in the Midwest, not far from Detroit, you feel that, mingled with the scent of rubber, must be that of ashes: the smell of Polish incinerators as well as crematoria where evidence of crime is reduced to dust. Amid the buzz of industry and the cranking of the machinery of money, its true form is betrayed by memories of what it has survived. Mailer’s book was published in 1991 and, fittingly, Scorsese’s film ends in the early 90s at the time of the bombing of Serbia. Well worth the time needed to watch.

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