Martin Scorsese’s latest epic crime film, The Irishman, has arrived in theaters and on Netflix in the midst of a broad reconsideration of the past century. The Baby Boomer generation, fairly or not, stands accused of growing up in a prosperous country and then throwing away everything that allowed for that prosperity in a fit of selfishness, either out of unwillingness to just pay their damn taxes or lack of interest in anything except their own hippie-dippie projects of self-realization. While denigrating the narcissism, self-indulgence, and unearned sanctimony of the Boomers, young people are also now looking back to older ideologies and institutions: the labor movement, socialism, the New Deal, and the anti-fascist crusade of WWII.
In many ways, the world built by our grandparents looks very attractive now that material prosperity and a meaningful life are harder and harder to obtain. The left yearns for the labor radicalism and solidarity of the 1930s, while the right longs for a return to the family values and stability of the 1950s. While we can recognize the pervasive racism, sexism, “toxic masculinity,” and homophobia of the past, there exists the dream that we could do it all again “clean,” symbolically represented in ideas like the Green New Deal. But The Irishman makes one wonder how possible that would really be, as Scorsese’s opus shows us the superficiality of anti-Boomer politics and the tragic limitations of the supposed Golden Age into which they were born. After all, Boomers are the way they are for a reason.
Scorsese’s best movies are all in some way about the political economy of the country and the lives of the white ethnic working and lower-middle class in the second half of the 20th century. Taxi Driver (1976) is the story of an alienated working-class man; Goodfellas (1991), to paraphrase the character Karen Hill, is about blue collar guys who decided to cut some corners to get their piece of the American dream; The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is about lower class parvenus scrambling to get rich, and the Teamsters’ pension fund hovers in the background of Casino (1995), as a source of capital for the mob-run Las Vegas casinos, which brings us to The Irishman.
The world built by our grandparents looks very attractive now that material prosperity and a meaningful life are harder and harder to obtain.
The backdrop of The Irishman is the post-war heyday created by the New Deal and the Second World War, what the economist Hyman Minsky called “managerial-welfare capitalism” or “paternalistic capitalism.” The government’s wartime needs financed massive investment in industry and infrastructure, guided by a technocratic management class in the federal bureaucracy and corporate world. The war disciplined the population, in either the Army itself or the industrial armies required to feed the war effort. New Deal legislation legitimized and strengthened labor unions, which shared in the industrial windfall and helped ensure rising wages, which in turn lead to an increased demand for consumer goods. Employment was high and the financial crises and recessions that we’ve grown accustomed to were mild and manageable, tackled quickly through aggressive government intervention. In short, big institutions — big government, big corporations, and big labor — provided for people.
Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), the titular Irishman, is the product of these institutions — he’s a WWII vet and a union teamster. But his experience of war destroyed his moral center, thoroughly deflating the “Greatest Generation” myth. There are no reminiscences of glorious feats of combat; in his one flashback, he’s shown dispassionately executing two German prisoners. He learned to kill and to obey, making him perfect for his eventual recruitment into the mob. Throughout the film he commits his murders-for-hire with no emotion. As he comments about his career as a hitman, “It was like the Army. You followed orders, you did the right thing, you got rewarded.”
But Frank is not a totally inhuman monster. DeNiro portrays him as stoic but eager to please, shy, diffident, and almost sweet at times. Very basic human needs — friendship, solidarity, to be part of something greater than himself — propel him into his career in both the Teamsters and the mob. He is not a “sociopath” and he is definitely not a narcissist: a life of crime comes from a pro-social rather than an anti-social tendency in him.
Frank also doesn’t enter his line of work for the money. He lives a modest middle-class life. Nor is he interested in power or fame; he’s very happy to support powerful men, and doesn’t show the ambition to supplant them. When he first gets involved in crime, stealing sides of beef from his employer for a local mobster, his main reward appears to be joining the mobster’s table to share the steak.
The main drama of the movie revolves around his friendships with his two bosses, Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the Pennsylvania mob. (Hoffa and Bufalino are tied through Bufalino’s cousin Bill, a Teamster lawyer who brokers the ties between the union and the mob.) Both men seem genuinely fond of Frank and enjoy his company. Something like family ties grow between the men; Hoffa even adopts a doting avuncular posture towards Frank’s children. (In their first conversation Hoffa tells Frank, “I heard you were a brudder of mine” — not for nothing do union members refer to each other as “brother.”) Russell, played by an unusually restrained and low-key Pesci, who is more of a father figure to Frank. In the end, the father’s claim on Frank’s loyalty is the decisive one.
Any mob flick worth its salt asks the viewer what really differentiates the Mafia from the society of which it is the byproduct. Scorsese highlights moments in which the Mafia rubs up against the mainstream of society: We see its involvement in the election of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs invasion, and in more apocryphal and legendary things, like hints about the mob being behind JFK’s assassination. And like the broader capitalist society in which it is embedded, the mob’s underpinnings are force and fraud, but gone about with less hypocrisy. Sure, Hoffa is corrupt, but the world is a tough place, right? This is just the way things work. How effective would the union be for its members if they couldn’t torch some cabs or bribe officials?
The mafia fills in the gaps for these men that other institutions can’t quite fill. It appears to provide a cozy, clubby hideout from the alienation of being an anonymous worker — “one of 1,000 working-stiffs,” as Frank puts it. The “family” provides Frank with warmth: brotherhood and solidarity that’s lacking in the technocratic era of capitalism. Most of the scenes where Frank deals with the mob are over meals in the intimate environs of Italian restaurants. It’s a shortcut to the middle-class, a surrogate family, a private police force, it supplies society with its vices. To quote Curtis Mayfield, it’s your mama, it’s your daddy, it’s your pusherman. Like the union, the mob appears to not just be about money — it provides meaning. In one of the only scenes in which Frank shows emotion, he chokes up when Pesci’s character gives him a gold insignia ring, telling him he’s one of only three people that has one, and the only Irishman.
The mafia fills in the gaps for these men that other institutions can’t quite fill.
But ultimately, like the rest of the society of which it is the shadowy double, individuals are an indifferent part of the whole in the mob as well. No matter who gets whacked, there’s always someone to take their place. Hoffa mistakenly thinks he’s unique, an indispensable figure that the mafia will not dare to touch. Of course, they feel otherwise. And in the end, Frank and Russell find themselves old and forgotten in prison. No one is essential.
The only thing that apparently matters turns out to be money — access to the union’s pension fund. The struggle over that vast hoard of cash ultimately leads to Hoffa’s death. Prosperity turns out to be poisonous and what was supposed to create security ends up destroying it. (It’s worth noting here that the needs of pension funds, bloated by post-war prosperity and driven by the need for faster and higher returns on their investments, partly dismantled the New Deal order of regulated capitalism in favor of the regime of unrestrained finance we have today.)
Like so many working stiffs from his era, Frank finds himself alienated from the family for whom he worked to provide. He leaves one wife for a younger woman, but she’s out of the picture by the time Frank is an old man. Like so many other Baby Boomers felt towards their parents, his children are alienated by his coldness and willingness to go along with the inhumanity of the system. One of his daughters won’t speak to him after she figures out he probably had a role in killing Hoffa, to whom she was close.
Prosperity turns out to be poisonous and what was supposed to create security ends up destroying it.
When he tries to justify himself to another daughter, he says he did what he did in life to protect them. She scoffs at this, saying his children couldn’t come to him for anything, because they were afraid of what he’d do. (His estranged daughter once saw him brutally beat a grocer who had shoved her.) Frank’s toughness, cultivated by the war, the mob, and the Teamsters, ironically leaves him useless as a patriarch. So it often went with the type of men nostalgically idolized as the nucleus of the supposedly solid families of that era: dessicated by the requirements of their work, they only knew how to be stern, menacing Fathers, rather than warm and loving Dads. And as soon as his children could get away from him, they did. Frank goes into old age alone — no family, no friends, no institutions to support him, except a Catholic old age home.
Frank is left only with religion. Under the care of a priest, he is seen making small steps to coming to terms with his past. But he cannot quite get there. His remorse is limited; in some cases, it’s nonexistent. He is experiencing what Catholic theologians call “attrition,” sorrow over sin, but not “contrition,” true repentance. Attrition itself might be said to be one theme of the movie: everything is eventually worn down; corruption eats away at everything; we lose something just by taking part. In a way, the title itself reflects the central problem: being the “Irishman” is what gives Frank his identity, but it simultaneously removes it, making him just one of a genus, a type — “Frank Irish,” as he’s called by one character. Everything that has the power to make us, also has the power to undo us. The Irishman reminds us that whatever society or self we choose to build, there will always be a cost.