A door closing tight, shutting out an image of a man leaning on an elegant desk, taking the hand of a subordinate: a firm instruction to keep out. Another door half-open, behind which another man in physical decline sits, alone and afraid of the dark. Two cinematic perspectives on two doors. The first forms the conclusion of Francis Coppola's The Godfather, as Michael Corleone is effectively enthroned as a demonic king. The other may become comparably iconic, as Martin Scorsese's The Irishman’s Philadelphia mobster Frank Sheeran does the most he can to feel regret, to feel anything, after a life of theft, killing, and nihilism masquerading as protecting the ones he loves.
Much time and column inches have been devoted to how Scorsese has re-teamed with Robert De Niro after over two decades, to make yet another gangster film and to how Netflix funded the risky and not entirely successful digital de-aging of De Niro and his co-stars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, the better to tell a story decades in the unfolding. That story, in short, is based on Sheeran’s questionable claims of being the person who killed Teamster Union leader and national political force Jimmy Hoffa — but The Irishman doesn’t really care whether that story is factual. It must be said that watching De Niro as Sheeran, after a long period of work that didn’t match his talent, is a high — walking and talking like he lives in this film. But the great acting moment of 2019 is Pacino/Hoffa’s silent response to the news of JFK’s assassination: The dawning that getting what you wish for may really mean that you’re in far deeper than you thought.
But the ambition here extends far beyond the pleasure of seeing the three principal actors spar with each other, delicious though that is (given weighty support by, among others, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, and especially Anna Paquin, who speaks encyclopedic volumes with silent glances and one line of dialogue). The Irishman is a remorseful epic, in which Steven Zaillian’s eloquent and concise script, Thelma Schoonmaker’s brilliantly fluid editing, and Rodrigo Prieto’s glistening cinematography combine with hundreds of craftspeople working all-out, under the reflective oversight of an old man asking one more time what he can say about, what he can learn about, the world in which he was formed, and the world that he now helps form.
Making entertainment from stories of life lived at the intersection of selfishness, cruelty, and being “in charge” risks making dominating others look like fun. But The Irishman and The Godfather are entertainments that also burden the audience with responsibility. The Godfather, the best-known and most acclaimed gangster film, portrays Michael Corleone’s “achievement" — killing the heads of main New York Mafia families and becoming the unquestioned king of all he surveys — as a descent. There’s no pleasure to be had, no good life, never mind peace. The Irishman is punctuated every few minutes with the introduction of a new swaggering character, accompanied by a caption outlining how they would later meet their death. This is the anti-glamorization of violence. The whole film is told from the perspective of a character who pursued a similar path, and got an empty reward: sitting in a chair, alone, unable to even feel the sadness he now inhabits. The Godfather inspires horror; The Irishman, empathy.
Among the most tenderly pathetic moments in The Irishman involve De Niro, Pesci, or Pacino trying to convince themselves that they are good men because they do things like buy ice cream. Among the most chilling example ofthis is Sheeran’s brutal beating of a man as a form of “protecting” the daughter who is being alienated by the very act of witnessing her father’s violence. We follow a three and a half hour, several decade-long saga of one man’s wasted existence, investing in things that bring neither security nor happiness (and those three and a half hours fly by, whether watching in the theatre or at home), and at the end know more about ourselves. We all know, somewhere inside, that being kind to children and animals does not balance out some theoretical scale when measured against the cruelty we may have enacted.
To be sure, unionizing truck drivers was at least partly in service of a common good: better work conditions. And looking after your family, no one would argue with that. But what happens to a life when it commits itself to doing the wrong things for the right reasons? Did the things we took from others bring more than momentary fake gratification? Did our nation get where it is by kindness and vision, or by trampling over others? It may of course be some mixture of both. The question is whether our myths — personal and national — allow room for, as the ethicist Donald Shriver says, loving a country enough to remember its misdeeds. And when we can’t even remember the people we’ve harmed, and nobody else knows why we think we mattered, we may experience the good fortune of facing the rock bottom need for grace. And it’s in the last segment, an epilogue, where The Irishman gathers its epic pain and rage, its judgments and separations, into a bundle of near-unimaginable need. The informal generosity of a listening ear mingles with the power of sacred tradition, as a young priest gently probes the conscience of a man who may not be able to reach it. And the door half-closes, as a life half-ends, with the slimmest possibility that maybe its bearer will discover that there may be some goodness that even the most heavily burdened souls can experience. Some good things that were not wasted, that rust and moths will not destroy.