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‘The Irishman’ Is the Story of Power in America

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, organized crime touched every aspect of American life—none more so than the workforce

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

From the tail end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the mob was embedded into the fabric of American society. The seedy underworld was as integral to the workings of society as sports or Congress, in some cases possessing more influence than any mayor or governor. While the pop cultural fascination with the Italian American Mafia has focused on its seductive machismo, ultraviolence, criminal acts, sharp suits, and mysterious fraternity, the real key to the unparalleled power the mob accrued in the U.S. is its infiltration of labor unions.

Originally, low-level mobsters were hired by companies that needed muscle to go after striking workers, but mafiosi would soon be contracted by the unions themselves in desperate attempts to have their demands met. By the 1920s, this practice became labeled as “racketeering,” and the tactic was being used more by unions because of industry’s increased power and influence in post–World War I America, when unemployment took hold. But while common gangsters were available for handsome fees, the smarter and more powerful mobsters found ways to infiltrate the unions through organizational positions, seeing the bigger picture of how worker desperation could work in their favor. The mob slowly but surely wedged itself into the labor war, sending a clear message—via bombings, assassination plots, and other forms of violence—to both sides to either fall in line or pay the consequences, all while amassing more influence within the unions.

The mob was especially influential in construction unions and the Teamsters, which represents truck drivers. Those two workforces act as the country’s backbone, the people who build our landmarks and homes and transport our goods and services. In America we have a bad habit of dismissing the people who do the grunt work necessary to keep us afloat. They are our most important citizens, which the mob understood and successfully used to build their own power. Mafia members came from the same working-class neighborhoods as those in the unions fighting for their share and, in at least some ways, the mobsters saw themselves as fighting on the workers’ behalf. With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster opus about the Mafia’s history within the labor movement, the director is just as focused on those who did that grunt work.

The Irishman, which premiered on Netflix on November 27 after a limited theatrical run, is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses. Both the book and movie follow the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran—played in the film by Robert De Niro—a low-level teamster and hitman for the Bufalino crime family who eventually became the right-hand man and friend to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The Irishman separates itself from Scorcese’s previous gangster films like Goodfellas and Casino by shifting its focus to a henchman.

Sheeran gets involved with the Mafia through his relationship with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who ushers Sheeran into a life of organized crime after he is fired from his truck-driving job by hiring him to do messy grunt work: acting as a bodyguard, running guns across state lines, blowing up cars, and murdering whomever he’s asked to. Sheeran is a working-class guy, and the movie depicts a blue-collar ethic to mob life, with a high amount of physicality and ugliness. Even as Sheeran gets involved with Hoffa and moves up the ranks of the Teamsters, it’s never glamorous, and he’s never positioned as being on the same level as those in power.

From a larger-picture context, Scorsese’s latest is about work and death. As the characters get along in their lives, be it long or short ones, they lose themselves in their work. From Sheeran’s POV, we see how often the life consumed him, to the point that he put it ahead of his own family. But as the end draws near and the work falls away, all he can do is look back and wonder whether any of it really mattered—and not just the crimes he committed but also how he lived.

The Irishman is ultimately an end-of-life movie and a swan song for the gangster genre. While there will always be movies about the criminal underworld, it’s clear that film has changed in a post-Marvel world: There’s less room for a movie like Casino or The Godfather. Who better to give this type of film a proper funeral than Martin Scorsese? While the idea that this movie is a more indicting, morally upright film about violence and masculinity than, say, Goodfellas is a bit overstated (mostly because Goodfellas is itself an indictment), it is clear that Scorsese is more interested in this world’s tragedy and cynicism than the cocaine-fueled glamour and money that traditionally figures so heavily in the genre. The Irishman is about American history and the role men, specifically white men, have played in it. It is about family, crime, betrayals, and regret, and what time eventually does to all of us. There’s no Ray Liotta voice-over that can make that cool.

This is not to say the movie is a solemn, maudlin slog. The Irishman is still full of Scorsese’s trademark live-wire energy; it’s plenty funny, thrilling, and, despite the three-and-a-half-hour run time, quickly paced. De Niro gives a performance for the ages throughout multiple decades of Sheeran’s life thanks to the movie’s much ballyhooed de-aging technology (the answer is no, you don’t notice it that much); Pesci is magnetic and brilliant in a role that’s much quieter and subtler than his performances in past Scorsese movies; and there are terrific moments from other actors who come in and out, including Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, and Stephen Graham. But the movie really kicks up a notch once Pacino’s Hoffa enters the picture.

Hoffa’s story may not be as widely known now, but there was a time when he was arguably the most famous man in America after the sitting president. As head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Detroit staple grew the union to be the largest in the country, with a membership of more than 2 million at its peak. He was a boisterous, hot-tempered maverick who seemed to embody the working-class ethos because he was of it. He’d been working odd jobs since he was a teen and had an aggressive confidence and confrontational attitude that made him perfect for standing up to the powerful in favor of workers’ rights. He willingly took on the government and constantly earned the love of laborers. He was also incredibly crooked.

Hoffa was alleged to have formed connections with organized crime from nearly the beginning of his Teamster work. After the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, Hoffa famously became a prime target of Kennedy’s brother Bobby, whom the president appointed attorney general. The Irishman depicts the Senate hearings in which Hoffa was called to answer for the illegal activities underpinning his tenure as Teamsters president and the role that organized crime played. Hoffa would eventually serve jail time for fraud, conspiracy, and attempted bribery of a juror.

In some semblance of fairness to Hoffa, union ties to organized crime were so strong by the time of his reign that the idea of unifying or growing the Teamsters—and taking on American corporate interests—without mafia involvement would’ve likely proved daunting, perhaps even possible. And really that’s the story of power in America: The desire and greed for more of it means chipping away at or outright abandoning any moral center. Hoffa certainly did good things for truck drivers, but what seemed to be more important was the pursuit of power, and if it took help from the mob to get there, so be it. It worked until it stopped working.

Turning the camera away from the kingpins or the young up-and-comer in favor of capturing a more mundane, workaday violence makes The Irishman do for the gangster film what Unforgiven did for the Western. Imagine if Casino had been about the back-and-forth traveling by Artie Piscano or Goodfellas had been a tightly focused drama about Carbone and Johnny Roast Beef; aside from maybe Donnie Brasco, film audiences rarely get to spend time with the low-level gangsters who do the bidding of their bosses. There is no “money, power, respect” montage for Frank Sheeran, and you never see him get rich—in fact, part of why he ends up working alongside Hoffa is to make a little more money. Sheeran never becomes a boss; he becomes president of his own local but even then the movie never lets you forget that he is the stiff carrying out orders from the higher-ups. There are no benefits for him except the personal gratification that comes from being feared because of who he’s associated with and being able to get tipsy off another’s power trip. This is most evident when considering Sheeran’s first and second wife and his four daughters, who are more or less background players in the story on purpose. Sheeran chose the Mafia over his family for his own selfish satisfaction, and it’s not until it’s all over that he realizes his mistakes.

One of Scorsese’s best skills is dramatizing the passage of time and showing how much can happen in one’s life in seemingly the blink of an eye, and he’s very good at capturing the collapse of the criminal enterprises in his movies. There’s the arrests sequence in The Wolf of Wall Street, the “House of the Rising Sun” montage in Casino, and most infamously the helicopter-tailing, coke-fueled collapse of Henry Hill in Goodfellas. The Irishman has Scorsese’s most demure and longest version of this moment: The fall of everything in Sheeran’s life is drawn out and heavy as he lives with the consequences of his choices and the ugliness of old age and mortality.

The unflinching and raw final scenes ask whether anything we do in this life is meaningful, which is a tough position to consider in a film that’s about work and process and the labor that keeps things afloat. The Mafia hasn’t disappeared, but it’s certainly lost a lot of luster and influence. It stopped holding the same weight in labor unions after the Department of Justice began cracking down on it in the 1980s through civil racketeering lawsuits against numerous union reps with mob ties. The 1975 disappearance of Hoffa put the Mafia’s role in labor in the spotlight, and, except for a few cases, there’s been little evidence of mob control in current union activities. That also doesn’t even touch on how much of American labor has either been exported to other countries or decimated by technological advancements. The nature of blue-collar work continues to change; it’s not hard to see the end for much of the American workforce on the horizon, regardless of whether there’s a union fighting on your behalf.

A dominant theme in The Irishman’s production involves the ages of its stars and director. Scorsese turned 77 last month, De Niro and Pesci are 76, and Pacino is 79. While this almost certainly isn’t the last movie these guys will make, and there’s a chance they might make another movie together, there is a getting-the-band-back-together-for-one-last-show vibe to the proceedings. There are overt references to past movies featuring this group, be it the opening tracking shot, which pays homage to the infamous Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, another moment when Sheeran and Russell Bufalino speak in Italian while music that sounds straight out of The Godfather plays, and a hilarious scene when Hoffa meets with rival union boss Tony Pro (Stephen Graham), who is dressed like Tony Montana from Scarface. There’s also the reunion between Scorsese and Harvey Keitel, who was the director’s first muse before De Niro took over. Both Keitel and Scorsese made their feature debuts with the director’s 1967 full-length, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and Keitel starred in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets, in 1973.

While the movie is elegiac and endearingly touching in how it looks back on the careers of both its director and the three main actors, they are still having a lot of fun together. There are zippy, aggressive conversations, volatile confrontations, and physical and visual humor. You can look at the movie as a battle royal to determine which bromance means more to masculine cinematic history: Pacino and De Niro or Pesci and De Niro. There are historical moments that intersect with Scorsese’s other gangster films. In Goodfellas, when Henry Hill first meets Jimmy Conway, his narration of the moment mentions “before Apalachin and before crazy Joe decided to take on a boss and start a war.” The crazy Joe he’s referring to is “Crazy” Joe Gallo and the boss is Joseph Colombo, who ran the Colombo crime family, which Gallo was an unhappy part of. Long story short, Colombo began drawing attention after starting the Italian American Civil Rights League in New York to combat anti-Italian racism, and during a heavily populated rally Colombo was gunned down by a black gunman. It soon became evident that the shooter was a hired hand, though, and most of the evidence pointed to Gallo. This notable moment in the Mafia’s history is depicted in The Irishman, as is a brief scene covering how the Teamsters pension fund was used to build Las Vegas, which is obviously covered extensively in Casino. Another wrinkle is that at one point Sheeran is made to run guns to a pilot simply called “Ferrie.” That man, of course, is David Ferrie, who was alleged to have been part of the conspiracy behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and was played in the Oliver Stone film JFK by … Joe Pesci. A lot of The Irishman is a celebration of and conversation about the legacies of the men involved, an appreciation of the work that’s been done throughout their long and prolific careers.

It’s easy to see why a 77-year-old Scorsese might find himself so connected to such a fantastical story. So how much does it matter that it could all be bullshit? The only thing that can be proved was that Sheeran was a criminal with a relationship to Hoffa. But as for the “confession” that lies at its center, there is no concrete evidence linking him to the disappearance of Hoffa, and Sheeran is one of many others who’ve similarly “confessed” to Hoffa’s murder. In fact, the Hoffa confession, the murder of “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and the story of helping to run guns into Cuba for the Bay of Pigs are the sketchier claims of The Irishman. In I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran spins a tale of transporting weapons for the Mafia into Dallas ahead of the JFK assassination, which was too much even for Marty.

Read all together, Frank’s life comes off as too juicy to ignore, and ultimately the film is less interested in what happened than in presuming how those experiences might affect a man. Sheeran is left all alone in a retirement center, babbling this story to a writer, before finally passing on. It’s a very tempting tale and an easy one for guys like De Niro and Scorsese to fall in love with, mainly because it allows them to reflect on their own lives. Whether that’s right or wrong is harder to say, but it’s certainly not without consequences to run with a story like this, be it the crime of spreading falsehoods or daring to give a man like Frank Sheeran a swan song he didn’t earn. Much like another film based on a “true story,” The Social Network, perhaps The Irishman will be thought of more as a parable than official record.

“It’s gonna happen. Either way he’s going,” Bufalino says to Sheeran about Hoffa. He’s trying to make Sheeran come to terms with the fact that Hoffa has crossed the line and “certain people” want him to go. As much as Sheeran loves Hoffa and would like to save him, Hoffa’s end is inevitable, and the only real decision to make is whether to stand by Hoffa’s side or save himself. But this moment also reflects our own myopia; we’re all “going” either way, maybe not so soon but certainly eventually. As the movie reaches its harrowing conclusion, it wonders what was gained by Sheeran and Bufalino “saving themselves.” They spend much of their older lives rotting away in, respectively, a retirement home and prison. There is something profoundly ironic in Sheeran’s concern about how permanent his death will be. He expresses a desire to be interred in a mausoleum rather than be cremated or even buried, because the mausoleum feels “less permanent” and Sheeran figures there has to be another life after this one that apparently is only for the most preserved bodies. Regardless of how an afterlife works, that desire speaks to Sheeran’s hope that this life has more to it.

It’s one thing to be Martin Scorsese and contemplate whether being one of the greatest directors in cinema means anything, but this is a movie about a working-class guy, a blue-collar American who got involved in extraordinary circumstances. Most people will never be read about in a history class. Their contribution to the planet is simply to make it run: whether it’s fast food workers, construction workers, firefighters, or nurses. They are too often treated as insignificant, but we would have no functioning society without them. How we find meaning in this life is a personal journey, less about legacy than about a personal satisfaction in the things done with your time. Sometimes getting lost in the day-to-day mechanics of being a person in the world can help you forget the big-picture futility in all of it. But if nothing else,The Irishman will hopefully inspire people to take a vacation every once in a while.

Martin Scorsese might have riled up comic-book movie fans with his dismissal of those films as “not cinema,” but he has a point in arguing that there is a humanity missing from these stories. Humanity can be ugly, messy, complicated, dangerous, and vulnerable. It’s hard work just to be alive and to take part in making society run. The Irishman appreciates that work—even as it questions its purpose.

Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.

An earlier version of this piece misquoted a line from Goodfellas that referred to a historic Mafia summit; the name of the meeting was Apalachin, not Appalachia.