Leaving a matinée screening of Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman, I felt consumed by feeling. I felt lonely. I felt overwhelmed by the violence that, engine-like, drives American society. I felt like there was no reason for the sun to shine down on so much viciousness.
The Irishman is an epic historical drama that follows the life of Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran across the second half of the 20th Century. The narrative focuses on Sheeran’s involvement with the Bufalino crime family and his time as a bodyguard to labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa. The film begins with Sheeran, played wonderfully by Robert De Niro, narrating his story in a nursing home. We meet the various figures who’ve loomed large in his life, including Al Pacino’s charismatic Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino. In a film rich with excellent acting, it is Pesci’s restrained, subtle, mournful portrayal of Bufalino that deserves particular acclaim.
The Irishman is not just a mob movie. It’s concerned with the people that serve as vessels and victims of social change. This is an epic film in the actual sense of the word, belonging to an artistic tradition that spans thousands of years and usually seeks to speak to some aspect of a people, a state, a culture, etc. Epic films have often had a conservative-nationalistic bent, as in The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, but The Irishman belongs to that category of epic film that turns inward to draw out what is condemnable about epochal moments. What is most amazing about The Irishman is that its entire three-and-a-half hours exist in service of one final image that both concludes a story and opens up a massive body of emotional and ethical reflections. Compared to many of Scorsese’s other stylishistically vivacious movies, The Irishman practically feels minimalist even as it builds to a baroque sense of loss and evil.
My criticisms of The Irishman are specific. It behooves any film that is “about” the 20th Century to acknowledge the significance of social justice movements, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Furthermore, the complex and often harmful relationship between white labor activism and anti-racist movements is mostly untouched. While Scorsese does gesture obliquely towards these— notice how every speech Hoffa gives is to a room full of white men, or how women are trivial concerns to the male characters— engaging with these on the level of explicit narrative might have helped the film offer a more holistic view of the 20th Century.
Thinking about The Irishman, the one word that keeps coming to my mind is “oceanic.” There is a vast, unfathomable melancholy at the heart of this film that reminds me of the first time I ever swam in the Atlantic Ocean. Many critics have chosen to bury Scorsese while praising this film, but what should be apparent is that Scorsese remains one of the most vibrant filmmakers in the American cinema.