The Irishman, A True Story? (Movie Review)

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A Brief History

On December 6, 2019, we reflect back on our marathon movie watching experience of the previous night, namely the 209 minute long epic blockbuster film from Netflix, an historical crime film supposedly based on real events.  Not only is the movie a long one (3 hours and 29 minutes), it is also an expensive one, with a budget of $159 million, an incredible amount for a streaming app film.

Digging Deeper

Directed by Martin Scorcese, he of such notable films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear (remake), The Aviator, Casino, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street, the film has a solid, accomplished director well acquainted with the eponymous star, Robert De Niro.  The big names in this film just keep coming, with Al Pacino (another Italian American playing the role of an Irishman, in this case Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa) and Joe Pesci, a go to actor for the Italian American mobster type.  Other familiar stars include Anna Pacquin (a previous Oscar winner), Ray Romano, and Sopranos veteran, Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale.  Casting is impeccable.

The story revolves around Frank Sheeran, an Irish American truck driver and petty criminal that moves up the ladder in Teamsters Union ranks, becoming a protégé of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).  Frank (Bob De Niro), gets deeper and deeper into the seamy side of union activities and mob life, to the point of committing murders as part of his job.  Meanwhile, he also becomes an associate and protégé of Teamsters strongman Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  So far, all of this appears to match the historical record.  The story is fleshed out by the tales of his union/mob career by Frank Sheeran as told to author Charles Brandt in his book, I Heard You Paint Houses (2004).

The saga of Hoffa’s relationship with mobsters and behind the scenes machinations creates a tense and complex relationship between the various characters in the film, quite possibly reflecting the real life give and take and nuances between mob and union figures.  Throw in the Kennedy political family and their well known antipathy toward Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters and we have quite a dynamic at work, pushing and pulling of wills and liberal factoids thrown in about this guy or that guy and how each person ended up in jail or killed.  While the dialog and specific facts are either subject to the possibly faulty or self-serving memory of Frank Sheeran or the inventiveness of the script writers and director, it is easy to believe the main ideas are in fact based on real events.

The main plot point of the entire 3 and a half hour movie is the death of Jimmy Hoffa, a disappearance that has captured the imagination of the American public and generated all sorts of urban myths and conspiracy theories.  If you are going to watch the film and do not want to know any more about the disappearance of Hoffa according to Frank Sheeran, please stop here and leap ahead a couple paragraphs.  (Spoiler Alert!) 

Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) claims to have been the person that gunned down Jimmy Hoffa and took part in the disposal of the union leader’s body by cremation.  Since most speculation about the disappearance of Hoffa revolves around mobsters and union officials that have moved on without Hoffa while Jimmy was in prison, and these same mobsters and union usurpers resisted any attempt by Hoffa to resume his union leadership, the story seems quite plausible, though not actually provable with hard evidence.

The Irishman moves about throughout time, from when Frank is an old man in a nursing home to when he was a young punk starting out and first becoming exposed to the mob and the Teamsters Union.  Timelines bounce around, true, but never to the point that it is hard to keep up or distracting.  The audience can easily keep track of what it going on, and the action and drama is sufficient to keep interest in the story from wandering, quite a feat for such a long film.  Speaking of such a long film, watching this movie on your home television on Netflix allows you to take bathroom breaks without missing any action or plot points, even to break for a meal.  What a great way to watch this movie!

The Irishman has little of the hokey, formulaic dialog often found in mobster movies and comes across as genuine and believable.  Clichés and jargon that are used do not seem forced but fit into the script naturally.  While special effects spectacular scenes are not a main drawing point, those effects as needed are accomplished with relative perfection.  The aging and de-aging of the main characters as the timeline shifts back and forth is masterful, probably about as good as has ever been accomplished on film and is a highlight feature of this film.

Apparently some critics have moaned about the under-use of Anna Pacquin in the Irishman, as she has an almost incredibly small speaking part (like maybe 7 lines!), though her impact on the film is far greater than her limited dialog would imply.  Robert De Niro and savvy critics appreciate the contribution she makes to this film.  She plays a daughter of Frank Sheeran who is disgusted by his criminal activity and becomes estranged from her father by her own choice, an important and deceptively powerful plot point.  Speaking of critics, The Irishman has garnered tremendous praise, scoring a great 97% critics’ rating on aggregate critic site Rotten Tomatoes, while landing an 86% approval from audiences.  This is a great film, and we can only think the outlandish length hurts its popularity among those with less developed attention spans.  Seriously, this is one of the best mobster type movies we have ever seen.

Rated R for strong language and violence, we have to agree that children less than 13 may be adversely affected by the movie without parental guidance about the issues involved.  Normal teens should have no problems with the film, so perhaps a PG-13 rating would be enough caution.

So, did Frank Sheeran kill Jimmy Hoffa?  Are the accounts as related in the movie true, or stylized and fabricated to glorify Sheeran and sell books?  Can iconic Italian American actors successfully portray Irish American Teamsters?  To get the answers to these questions, watch The Irishman!

(Note: the author of this article was a Teamster, Local 407, from 1977 to 1979.  During that time, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa was only a couple years in the past, 1975, and was a hot topic of discussion.  At that time there was widespread support for Hoffa and he was spoken of highly by veteran Teamsters, though his reputation seems to have diminished over time.  If you know any Teamsters that worked during the Hoffa era, ask them what they think of this interesting historical figure and share those reflections with us.  Thanks.)

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe Frank Sheeran’s account of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Brand, Daniel. The Irishman: Frank Sheeran’s True Crime Story. Tru Nobilis Publishing, 2018.

Brandt, Charles. I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. Steerforth, 2016.

Goldsmith, Jack. In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

The featured image in this article, a poster for the 2019 epic crime film The Irishman, is of a poster, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters

  • to provide critical commentary on the film in question or of the poster itself, not solely for illustration
  • on an educational website, hosted on servers in the United States,

qualifies as fair use under the copyright law of the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.