[The Irishman is playing in a limited number of theaters until November 14, when it will debut worldwide on Netflix. The streaming service has taken a lot of hits from the movie industry, but its support of major filmmakers cannot be denied. Exceptional movies like The Irishman, Dolemite is My Name, and the upcoming Marriage Story and The Two Popes are ample evidence that the “new kid on the block” is investing in quality entertainment.]
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t go to a three-and-a-half hour movie in a gleeful state of mind. I hope I will be swept up by the film and remain unaware of the minutes ticking by. In the case of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman I was aware of the positive response it has received since its debut weeks ago at the New York Film Festival…but I’ll confess that I still had a “show me” attitude.
Now I’ve been shown. This quiet epic revisits a milieu the director has famously explored before but it never feels redundant or overly familiar. The main character is an insider named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who enjoys a close relationship with mobsters of all stripes as well as formidable Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank tells his story to someone just off-camera from his wheelchair in a nursing home, and the result is ruminative if not regretful. Inevitably there are echoes of Goodfellas but the movie comes from a completely different perspective.
As for length, I will quote pioneer producer Sam Goldwyn, who when asked how long a good movie should be, replied, “How long is a movie good?” This one is better than good. I was riveted to the screen until the last twenty minutes or so; that’s when I was ready for it to wrap up and became impatient.
Working from a screenplay by the gifted Steven Zaillian, Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker take the time to survey every scene and wring every drop of emotion out of the incidents that make up their story. Some sequences even play out in slow-motion. The filmmaker allows us to savor the details that fill the screen, from vintage cars to storefronts and neighborhoods as they looked in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. All of this is set to a playlist of popular records of those years, from Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset” to Johnny Ray’s “Cry.”
As to the visual effects wizardry that de-ages De Niro, Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, I surrendered to it early on. Seeing is believing, where movies are concerned, and if all visual evidence tells me I am watching De Niro and his costars as they looked and behaved some forty years ago, I have no reason to think otherwise. Here is movie magic of a very high order.
Scorsese and Zaillian make a point of telling us, through visual notes over freeze-frames, that most of the men we meet during this expansive saga came to violent ends. This adds a layer of doom to the proceedings even during relatively tranquil moments. Aside from De Niro, who is narrating the story, no one gets out alive.
De Niro’s face tells much of the story even when he isn’t speaking. He rises through the ranks of a mob family because he is a good soldier; no one questions his loyalty to mafia mentor Russell Buffalino (Pesci) or his unwavering support of Hoffa. Pesci underplays his part, ceding the role of loose cannon to Pacino, whose stubborn adherence to rules of conduct lends the film a welcome touch of humor.
When Hollywood introduced the public to gangster films in the 1930s, censors and civic leaders worried that moviegoers would find their exploits exciting, even glamorous. I don’t think anyone could level the same charge at The Irishman. There is nothing appealing about the way of life depicted here, even compared to Scorsese’s earlier films. Yet these characters are undeniably compelling. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It would be churlish to complain too much about overlength when a movie offers so many rewards.