The restrained tone, middle American location, and half-century historical sweep of The Irishman depart from Scorsese’s gangland epics Goodfellas and Casino. It isn’t a political treatise, but it does tie its moral perspective to the political arrangements and institutions in the Scorsese canon. He shows a political world driven by patronage: a transaction-based hierarchical system devoid of ideology and only a primitive sense of public purpose. Political scientists have developed a concept known as clientelism that describes an arrangement based on a vertical exchange within a fixed hierarchy, and Scorsese presents client-based institutional arrangements as an artifact of his ancestors’ Italian world landing in America.
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When The Irishman was released, director Martin Scorsese downplayed the movie’s political ambitions despite its many political references and prodigious name dropping.1 But the signaling about politics is unmistakable. When Scorsese covers the 1960s, JFK consumes a large section in the middle passages, and Scorsese shows videotape from his 1961 inaugural parade, but we never hear him speak. Everyone knows the famous line from the inaugural speech that day2 and those words can land as old-fashioned and condescending. In this film, the words evoke a fully formed political philosophy, and its perfect antithesis is the political and institutional arrangement demonstrated by the mob. When it comes to politics, gangsters only ask what their patrons can do for them, in exchange for their loyalty. Kennedy, in particular, is a loathsome public figure to each of the three central characters (Robert De Niro as hitman and functionary Frank Sheeran, Joe Pesci as restrained mob boss Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino as Teamster union president Jimmy Hoffa). The Kennedy rhetoric is ideological and high-minded but the wise guys are not. The politics of The Irishman links to its moral tragedy, and Scorsese makes the political story deeply personal.
The restrained tone, middle American location, and half-century historical sweep of The Irishman depart from Scorsese’s gangland epics Goodfellas and Casino. It isn’t a political treatise, but it does tie its moral perspective to the political arrangements and institutions in the Scorsese canon. He shows a political world driven by patronage: a transaction-based hierarchical system devoid of ideology and only a primitive sense of public purpose. Political scientists have developed a concept known as clientelism that describes an arrangement based on a vertical exchange within a fixed hierarchy, and Scorsese presents client-based institutional arrangements as an artifact of his ancestors’ Italian world landing in America.3 The mob isolates itself from the dominant political culture outside of it, anchored in a morality that protects its inhabitants from the evil that drives all human nature.
Along with its surviving characters, appreciation of The Irishman will age slowly. We know the scale of the film is enormous (“big, but it’s intimate” as Scorsese puts it).4 Any of the three central characters could inhabit his own film. The film’s density was allowed to fill the space of a single motion picture, and we can imagine the story depicted as an unsatisfying mini-series5 with fewer complaints about the length.6 Instead, its enormous scale gives the strange sense that the story moves in real time.
The scale also reminds the audience: this movie is entertaining, but it has gravity, and you need to pay attention. The Irishman is a sly, orderly unfolding of postwar American class struggle and the tragedy of unthinking loyalty. Occasionally, it’s a surprising indictment of postwar gender politics, surprising because only one gender dominates the action.
When we watch the usual gangster movie, we don’t expect to see a moral struggle. Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Tony Montana in Scarface, and Tom Powers in The Public Enemy didn’t fret about their moral choices. The Irishman stands out as a story of moral dilemma and the characters’ self-aware falls from grace. More than anything else, The Irishman is the most refined examination of moral conflict in any 21st-century film. Unlike the other great Scorsese mob epics, the central characters want to achieve a kind of moral fitness. In a picture about criminals we should never pay attention to seemingly heroic behavior, because we’re watching bad people acting horrifically. Moral depravity is the usual hallmark of gangster movies, which Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino emphasize.7 In The Irishman, the failure lies with the moral system, not the moral aspirations of the main characters. The Irishman adapts the mob movie genre and introduces authentic personal struggle with tragic consequences.
The flashbacks in the earliest scenes reveal the characters’ constrained moral universe. We see Frank in the late 1940s in the south Philly hangout Friendly Lounge, which stands to this day assuming it survives the 2020 pandemic.8 The bartender9 encourages the male customers to down their multiple shots. Some patrons drive a truck for a living, and the shots go down an hour that seems like it’s nine in the morning (“Let’s go, let’s make some money today.”), but the bar’s nearly lightless interior makes time of day unrecognizable. In a few seconds and with one image, the bartender extends the perfect compliment about Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), the bar’s owner,
“He’s got a lot of good action, a lot of good connections.”
And we have a complete moral system described in one imperfect sentence. What else can be achieved in a lifetime, beyond “good action” by accomplishing something worthwhile, and “good connections” by doing good to the people around you? Demonstrate some good action and make some good connections, and you have lived a moral life.
The Irishman occupies a world of instrumental morality, not a moral vacuum. The central characters aspire to well-lived, realized lives, based on a code of tribal loyalty. They are frugal and self-disciplined in different ways, and to a degree unrecognizable to the wiseguys in Goodfellas. They do terrible things, but they are motivated by sincere belief in a life owed to the people in your proximity and within the chain of command.
Tribal loyalty connects these characters to the contemporary American political crisis, where unity was based on connections to the people around us (or as Hoffa memorably exhorts: “Solidarity!”), as opposed to a system of ideas. A moral system informed by loyalty connects with politics based on patronage, which Henry Hill in Goodfellas explains that Paulie and the organization were “a police department for wiseguys.” Rule by patronage demands isolation from anything outside the patronage network, and morality, like tribute, is kicked upstairs.
The big three characters in The Irishman are rarely burdened by self-reflection (Hoffa especially), but they are all capable of measuring situations and the people around them. The Irishman draws its power from those bad-guy moral struggles, without valorizing or glamorizing anything they do. They are blinkered bad guys, but not complete sociopaths. Their moral aspirations contrast with the truly bad guys in the film’s periphery. We never see the characters as children, but the clues about childhood are found everywhere. In the usual treatment of tragic mobsters, you can see the explanation of their monstrosity: avarice, psychological damage, or mulishness. But in The Irishman, the bad guys try to measure up to a constrained moral system based on loyalty and protection from existential threats.
For Russell, the threats come from outside the Mafia hierarchy and the feudal order that define him. These forces include the Cubans, threats to the Teamsters, and ultimately Hoffa. For his part, Hoffa mobilizes the Teamster rank and file around the threats of “big business and big government,” the rich kid Kennedys, and the undisciplined mob encroachment on the union and its influence, personified by primeval Teamster rival Tony Provenzano.10 With the brief appearance of the troglodyte Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo11 – at the climactic Teamsters award dinner, the prophecy of 21st-century populism is so broad everyone might as well wear MAGA hats. Frank’s struggle is the story’s centerpiece, and De Niro ’s performance projects a constant and painful moral calculation. The choices are defined by the need for protection everywhere, all the time, and only blood can protect blood.
The award dinner and Hoffa’s Teamster rallies foreshadow contemporary populism and make the case that populism represents client-driven patronage politics that connects The Irishman to Scorsese’s Italian-American diorama. These moments raise a critical question for contemporary audiences: when Hoffa, Frank Rizzo, or Donald Trump stir up their crowds, are they promising material rewards or devotion to a set of ideas? The case in The Irishman is clear. When you’re speaking to a tribe and tribal identity, and when you’re exhorting the parochial us in favor of them, rewards beat ideas any day. Think of Trumpism as a kind of clientelism that exchanges self-worth and a sense of belonging along with the promise of material goods, but demands loyalty. If you are one of us, and if you’re in the brotherhood; and if not, you’re a Nazi collaborator or a cocksucker. Maybe the U.S. Army lives in the brotherhood, but that’s an extreme and exceptional example, and the armed forces’ tenuous relationship to Italian-American patronage lives forever in the final scene of Godfather II when Michael is nearly beaten by Sonny for his decision to enlist. The belief system behind Naziism doesn’t matter to Frank’s brotherhood, and the German army that defends the Nazis is bad because it is defined as an “other.” But the tragedy in The Irishman makes the case that America is, in fact, an idea, not a power arrangement. Eventually, Hoffa and the mob become enemies. In a Scorsese picture, a power system based on tribal loyalty can’t coexist with institutions outside of itself. The failure of patronage is hammered by Scorsese whenever he freezes the frame and displays the details of a wiseguy’s demise, including Frank himself before he is sent to prison.
Frank’s moral system is easy for him to process until the system’s contradictions present themselves. That kind of ethical system helps prepare an American army that can march into Italy, an army that does enjoy the wisdom of historical or political context. In the war, Frank (an “Irisher” as Russell notes) mastered the Italian language, and uses his mastery to great effect in his early conversation with Russell. But Frank undoubtedly never mastered the political contours that put German soldiers in the sight of his rifle. As he reveals in his early hotel-room meeting with Hoffa, moral choices always involve a calculation of threat that sometimes means, in Hoffa’s words, “a little beer” has to be spilled.
Along with the other Scorsese crime movies, and Goodfellas in particular, we see the usual class-based striving, the coded language, the insularity, the cues revealing long passages of time. In Goodfellas and Raging Bull, Scorsese uses photographs to create this time lapse. But the stylistic differences with Goodfellas are emphasized by the jarringly humane performances of De Niro and Pesci. Neither performance is recognizable from their work in Goodfellas, Casino, or Raging Bull. The central characters in The Irishman may try to acquire money, but they certainly aren’t flashing it. Not even Frank’s lovingly worn Lincoln Continental suggests any kind of material excess, and the modest eastern Pennsylvania houses make you wonder: why are they whacking people for such puny rewards? Russell operates out of a Pittston, Pennsylvania fabric shop, and everything about his surroundings or bearing suggests modesty and care, along with competent and caring human interaction. Scorsese’s change of venue from New York City to Pennsylvania tamps down the pace and everything around it. Passages in the film involving New York City and Crazy Joe Gallo help place us away from New York, and the artistry required to shift us into Pennsylvania appears everywhere, starting with the Pennsylvania Dutch-infused Philly accents. New York is a hundred miles away, but it might as well be a hundred thousand.
We learn early about Russell’s analytical power and his perfect recollection and impeccable diplomatic skill, all of which make Frank cower with awe and insecurity. Frank is smart and perceptive, but knows he is not Russell’s intellectual equal and he lacks the breeding to direct the people around him and exercise influence. In a scene where Frank meets Hoffa at a Chicago hotel with Hoffa’s aide-de-camp Joey Glimco12 describes Frank as some kind of leader (he talks about how “the seas parted” when Frank entered the picture dockside with the taxi cabs). In fact, Joey confuses Frank’s situational awareness with an ability to direct people. Frank can follow orders with intelligence, and can decode mobspeak.
Glimco has it backwards. Frank is a pleaser, not a leader. He can read his bosses’ demands with precision, but under pressure he only murmurs and repeats what he is told, even as president of Teamster local. Frank executes assignments with artistry and attention to detail, but he doesn’t make decisions. Like a good functionary or middle manager, he worries about the how, not the why. In an early scene where he bonds with Russell, Frank shows greater confidence speaking in Italian, a language he learned over four years during the war, than in his Pennsylvania-inflected English. His speaking ability declines as the movie proceeds. Frank is nothing more or less than a great soldier. His service in Italy under Patton in the Fifth Infantry comes up twice: his phone introduction with Hoffa (“I felt like I was talking to General Patton”) and the awards dinner, where shared admiration of Patton binds the otherwise strained relations between gangsters and the Teamsters. Real soldiers practice loyalty and receive rewards, and they don’t express ideals.
Mid-century nostalgia for World War II, and its ensuing trauma, anchor the story’s chronology. Frank demonstrates that in crises, fear begets authoritarian allure. Generally, we all long to be part of something that transcends our identity and our desires. But we can confuse that longing with fealty to the authority at hand. Frank is bossed around by the authoritarians in his vicinity who are willing and able to boss him. He doesn’t know or care who you are, unless you’re in his immediate circle or self-evident in the chain of command. His craving for their approval bleeds on the screen. Frank reveals the tie between need for approval and introversion: if you are his boss and he is convinced that he has won your approval, that if you’re satisfied with him then you will leave him (and his introverted self) the bloody hell alone. Your approval means that his world is ordered and unthreatened.
The recurring image of a slightly opened door reveals the personal tragedy of the story. Frank achieves a kind of triumph in the end: leave the door open just a little, and he can comfortably survive in the interior of his own consciousness. The slightly open door expresses the classic movie expression that we want to see everything, but we want nothing to see us (the brilliant motivation of Hitchock’s Rear Window). The door motif means many things in the movie; for instance, in the early scenes where Scorsese uses bluesman Smiley Lewis’s refrain “I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in,” he bluntly reveals the sad truth about the characters’ lack of social mobility. But it also conveys protection and safety, Frank’s highest moral achievements. Frank sees you, but you don’t see him.
As an ordinary teamster, Frank steals hindquarters from his meat company because he needs to earn for his family. Meanwhile, all of the systems and institutions around him reinforce the act of stealing. If Frank can make Skinny Razor smile, and if he can share the satisfaction of a well-cooked and gently pilfered steak, then he has realized something much more important than satisfying the unknowable expectations of the Food Fair grocery chain and trucking company. And Frank recognizes that approval will roll upstairs to bigwigs like Angelo Bruno13) and Russell. Frank knows that stealing meat is wrong, but defending the family and the union is even worse. (“I work hard for them when I’m not stealing from them.”)
Ultimately Frank is rewarded by recognition from Hoffa, who is obviously torn by this tendency in the trucking industry that he partially manages. Hoffa knows that destroying trucking companies will ultimately destroy the union and the workers themselves. He understands the mob’s threat to his Teamster ideals, and despite his loathing of the Kennedys’ assault on his leadership, Hoffa is smart enough to know his political enemies have a point. But in Frank’s case, the big political institutions make no sense to him because they don’t support the agendas of the people around him who are his real authorities. Frank craves stability and order for the same reasons he craves the world’s approval.
Both Goodfellas and The Irishman are packed with political content and the cautionary tales of a patronage-based political regime. As in any good story about the mob, Scorsese characters are constantly resisting the imperative to trust institutional arrangements two or three layers removed from them. The connection between Frank and Goodfella’s Henry Hill is easy to spot. And they are not alone. Angelo and Russell are the people who deserve Frank’s loyalty, which Frank freely gives. Jimmy Hoffa enters Frank’s small circle of loyalty because Russell legitimizes him. For Frank, Jimmy Hoffa is the equivalent of Patton; for WWII grunts like Frank, no higher praise is possible.
No one in The Irishman can coexist with institutions that operate at a distance from the Teamster or Mafia silos. The MC at Frank’s awards dinner jokes, “Meanwhile, out in the trees, we have the FBI,”14 a reminder that American political institutions live outside Teamster tribal hierarchy. Somehow, the American military invaded the Teamster consciousness (recall the love of General Patton expressed at the same event), revealing the central place of World War II in their minds. But the more conventional and threatening democratic institutions never penetrate that bubble. At the same time, the characters force you to confront tension between tribal loyalty and genuine American identity. In this way, The Irishman converses with every great Mafia picture since The Godfather, which keeps the focus on its unique tribal perspective.
Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa combines ruthlessness and idealism about the Teamsters that make him one of Scorsese’s great characters, but the film has so many moving parts that it doesn’t need to revolve around him. Pacino, for his part, owns one of the great oratorical flourishes in modern film. In our introduction to him, Hoffa fires up the rank and file with pitch-perfect leadership. If you want to motivate a bunch of truck drivers, tell them that for every consumer in the country, “If you got it, a truck brought it to you.” Compared to Russell and Frank, Hoffa is capable of great empathy, but he is also entirely aware of his own charisma, his reliance on the great “other” to inspire his troops. In this speech, big government and big corporations, who are “coming hard and coming fast,” are the others, but more insidious othering is easy to imagine. Ultimately, Hoffa can’t separate his legitimate concern about the mob’s role in the union, and his own personal need to claim power.
The connection between Hoffa and Frank’s daughter Peggy tells us everything about the differences between Hoffa and Russell. The Peggy/Jimmy relationship exposes Russell’s shame at not having children and his need to win over Peggy, who despises Russell. Contrast that rejection with Peggy’s spontaneous affection for Hoffa, who can win her affection with ice cream without resorting to Russell’s C-note gift to Peggy at Christmas. Hoffa can read crowds, he can read kids, all he needs to give her is special attention in a world where she’s always fighting for it. Unlike Frank and Russell, Hoffa has no willingness to self-reflect or question his faith in his own magnetism and righteousness. Ultimately, he directs his self-regard against the influence of the mob and his own unholy alliance with them.
In a different sense, Hoffa is far less confused about the wide world than Russell or Frank, in that he doesn’t confront the world as a struggle for protection and safety. Hoffa believes in the mission of organized labor, which explains his resentment about mob control in the union, but his belief in the cause of Jimmy Hoffa is greater. His success is also a vehicle for his need for personal expression, a need so powerful it’s almost disembodied. His self-regard is an irresistible force, and Hoffa himself just rolls along with it. The fact that Hoffa never knew he was going to be killed is perfectly in character with this tendency, and in this respect, Frank’s efficient assassination technique did Hoffa an enormous favor.
As Russell, Pesci once again portrays the worst character in a Scorsese movie, despite the character’s brilliance and restraint. The audience learns to cringe at Russell’s exploitation of Frank. But Russell shares a weakness with Frank: his desire to please. In his case, this means Russell’s wife Carrie and her family, the Sciandras. We don’t see this extended family, but we learn they were “mob royalty” who came to America on “the Italian Mayflower,”15
Russell’s defining moment16 in the story is the flashback, when the young Russell comes home with blood on his shirt. The townhouse is grimy, narrow, and dark. The fixtures suggest we’re looking at the 1920s, but mob hits were still bona fide hits. Russell is exhausted; Carrie comes down the stairs in her nightgown. He gives Carrie a frightened look. His look says “you’re going to hurt me” and “I don’t know if I did what I was supposed to do. But I did it for your family, and ultimately, for you.” Her look says only, “I despise this, and I have lived with this male-dominated crap my whole life.”
The scene converses with the famous abortion reveal between Michael and Kay in Godfather II. Spousal bitterness rarely presents with this much anguish. In her nightgown, Carrie wears a cross and regards Russell like a misbehaving, wayward son. Carrie is complicit: “Give me those clothes. I’ll get rid of them.” But she knows this Sicilian thing will not end, not right away at least, while Russell’s self-loathing is boiling down within him. She dishes out a familiar maternal command: “Don’t forget your shoes, Russell.” It’s something else you would say to a child, and Russell takes it. We realize that Russell lives to somehow acquire the unattainable respect of Carrie’s family, living and dead. Russell and Carrie can’t have children, so for them, the Sicilian thing will end after all.
The Irishman is a demanding movie, but you can ignore two complaints: its lack of veracity and its attempt to de-age the main characters in the film. It’s not a documentary, in spite of its origins in a supposedly nonfiction account of the main character. And the younger CGI versions of the main actors don’t look especially young, but we should remember younger men in the mid-20th century aged fast and did not generally look young, despite the era’s cinematic expression of youth. Men didn’t dress young. In the imaginations of people who remember those years, youngish characters moved like old men, and young characters in movies were young there, and no place else. Aesthetically, the postwar world that the story occupies is becoming unrecognizable today, and the film is much more significant as a document of its time, place, and its working-class subculture.
Critics also note the sketchy and underdeveloped depiction of the women in The Irishman, which complicates the case that The Irishman has much to say about feminism. But if nothing else, women claim the film’s moral high ground. Obviously, men rule over women in their day-to-day relationships inelegantly. But women are idealized and form the focus of Frank’s misdirected protective instincts. His cluelessness in his conversation with Dolores near the movie’s end reveals the failure of his crude desire to be a protector. The terror of the breathtaking sequence in Frank’s home, where his family watches news of the Hoffa disappearance, is pure cinematic greatness and the center of my personal Scorsese highlight reel. Peggy asks “Why?” twice before asking “Why haven’t you called Jo?”17 We recognize that each time she asks, “Why?” she is asking a different question. Why did you kill Jimmy? Why did you destroy so many people at the behest of Russell Bufalino? Why did you ultimately forsake us like you forsook Jimmy? Like us, Peggy watches Frank from the outside, barely visible and repulsed by Frank, and he comes to realize that Peggy inhabits the moral and political universe outside his bubble. Frank craves Peggy’s approval like everyone else’s, but will never live to see it. He had no answer for her, and he knew in that moment his life would end without her.
Gemmill, Allie, “Martin Scorsese: ‘The Irishman’ Won’t Work as a TV Series for This Key Reason,” Collider (November 30, 2019) https://collider.com/the-irishman-not-a-tv-series-explanation-martin-scorsese/
Hicken, Allen, “Clientelism,” Annual Review of Political Science 14, no. 1 (June 15, 2011): 289–310, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.031908.220508.
Nochimson, Martha P. “New York Film Festival 57 – Scorsese, Baumbach, Norton: A Tryptic” Film Criticism v. 43 n.3 Reviews 2019, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0043.319
Stokes, Susan C., “Political Clientelism,” Oxford Handbook of Political Science ed. Robert E. Goodin, (Oxford University Press, 2011). https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199604456.013.0031.
Tangcay, Jazz, “Designing Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’,” Variety, (December 9, 2019), https://variety.com/2019/artisans/awards/the-irishman-martin-scorsese-production-design-1203424412/
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Martha P. Nochimson, “New York Film Festival 57 – Scorsese, Baumbach, Norton: A Tryptic” Film Criticism v. 43 n.3 Reviews 2019, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0043.319 [↩]
- The famous line is “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” [↩]
- For recent overviews of clientelism, see Susan C. Stokes, “Political Clientelism,” Oxford Handbook of Political Science ed. Robert E. Goodin (Oxford University Press, 2011), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199604456.013.0031. and Allen Hicken, “Clientelism,” Annual Review of Political Science 14, no. 1 (June 15, 2011): 289–310, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.031908.220508. [↩]
- Jazz Tangcay, “Designing Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’,” Variety, (December 9, 2019), https://variety.com/2019/artisans/awards/the-irishman-martin-scorsese-production-design-1203424412/ [↩]
- Allie Gemmill, “Martin Scorsese: ‘The Irishman’ Won’t Work as a TV Series for This Key Reason,” Collider (November 30, 2019). https://collider.com/the-irishman-not-a-tv-series-explanation-martin-scorsese/ [↩]
- The runtime is 209 minutes, and The Irishman marks another step in the blurring of motion pictures with serialized television; the artistic vision of Scorsese seems to explain its creation as a single film instead of a serial, more than the technical or commerci, cral considerations. [↩]
- Add Wolf of Wall Street to this list, even though it’s not a gangster movie in a literal sense. [↩]
- Friendly’s Philly address is 1039 S. 8th St. https://onthegrid.city/philadelphia/bella-vista/friendly-lounge [↩]
- Played to perfection by occasional character actor Frank Pietrangolare [↩]
- Played by Stephen Graham, the British character actor memorable as Al Capone in the series Boardwalk Empire, and whose mastery of unhinged American gangsters is presently unrivaled. [↩]
- Frank Rizzo was the bombastic 1970s Philadelphia mayor and ex-police chief whose depiction in a large outdoor mural was removed during the June 2020 protests. A famous 1975 quote – “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” [↩]
- Glimco is memorably played by Bo Dietl, a Scorsese habitué who is better known as a “security expert” and conservative media personality for Fox News and various alt-media outlets. (https://www.salt.org/bio-dietl-bo). [↩]
- Played by Harvey Keitel, who has aged gracefully since Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Angelo has an exchange with Frank that could be the movie’s comic highlight. (“Do you know who owns it? I do” [↩]
- Roofers Union president John McCullough, played by Kevin O’Rourke, TV crime show stalwart and another Boardwalk Empire alumnus. [↩]
- The unidentified, wholly realized wiseguys at Grace Bufalino’s wedding could be potential Sciandras. [↩]
- The scene is also the greatest moment in Pesci’s performance, whose silence presages the powerful and nearly unspoken performance of Anna Paquin as Peggy. [↩]
- Hoffa’s wife Jo, played by Goodfellas alum Welker White. [↩]