‘The Irishman’ Tells the Story of the Corruption of Empire

‘The Irishman’ Tells the Story of the Corruption of Empire

‘The Irishman’ Tells the Story of the Corruption of Empire

Scorsese’s gangster epic highlights the personal and political cost of counterrevolutionary violence.


By a mysterious but immutable law of modern American politics, every impeachment crisis is accompanied by the release of a classic gangster movie starring Robert De Niro. The Godfather (1972) opened the year of the Watergate break-in. De Niro appeared in the sequel, The Godfather II (1974), coinciding with Nixon’s resignation. Bill Clinton began his ill-fated relationship with Monica Lewinsky in 1995, which saw the release of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, a tale of love and betrayal among hoodlums in Las Vegas with De Niro again in the lead. Now, as Donald Trump’s impeachment dominates headlines, Scorsese and De Niro have reunited for The Irishman, an elegiac revisiting of the genre replete with echoes of precursors like the Godfather movies and Goodfellas (1990).

The chronological overlap can easily be explained as mere coincidence. Over the last five decades, gangster movies and impeachments have both been common enough. But there is a deeper cultural affinity connecting this genre with political corruption.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia trilogy and Scorsese’s films in the same genre have all been critiques of American society as much as crime stories. Political figures have noticed but, like some in the audience, have often drawn the wrong lessons, thinking these are movies that celebrate thuggery. In 2017, while preparing to combat special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump’s staff started talking about the need to “go to the mattresses”—a line from the The Godfather meaning fighting an all-out war. During the trial of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant found guilty of lying to Congress and other offenses, it was revealed that Stone told an associate to “do a Frank Pentangeli”—a reference to a character in Godfather II who resisted answering questions in a congressional hearing by pretending to be dimwitted and confused.

The Irishman is intently attuned to the language of crime, in a way that helps illuminate Trump’s impeachable offenses. The gangsters in The Irishman speak in the special idiolect of those who want to do wrong but know they are being monitored. So they convey their meaning with circumlocution, studied vagueness, euphemism, dropped hints, and pointed intonation. Being a hit man becomes “painting houses.” To order someone to be killed, you ask that your minion “get him a ticket, like, to Australia.” Or, even more often, crimes are referred to as “favors.”

This is the exact sort of language Trump and his cronies use in their pressure campaign to coerce Ukraine to fabricate a scandal about Joe Biden. This was the language of Trump’s notorious phone conversation of July 25 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. After Zelensky asked for more military aid, Trump responded by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

The fact that the president now talks like a gangster is a vindication of a genre of movies that for many decades have portrayed crime as intimately woven into the fabric of American life. The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), which offered the end-of-life confessions of Frank Sheeran, a mobbed-up Philadelphia union official who claimed to have participated in many famous Mafia crimes, including the murder of Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa, who famously disappeared in 1975.

Sheeran’s confessions have been much disputed and are almost certainly filled with lies. While he was undoubtedly a middling hoodlum, he clearly also had a penchant for tall tales and putting himself in the center of stories that happened to other people. For the purposes of Scorsese’s movie, these prevarications are useful. Scorsese’s not interested in doing a literal history but rather in weaving together existing Mafia lore into a cohesive counter-myth to challenge the American exceptionalist myth of the country’s inherent goodness. The Frank Sheeran of The Irishman, played with impeccable inarticulate constraint by De Niro, is thus a convenient fiction, a Forrest Gump figure who is always at the right place to illustrate the arc of American life from World War II to the early 21st century.

Scorsese’s Mafia myth highlights how the crimes of the underworld have been integrally linked with the crimes of the American empire. Frank Sheeran, in the movie, became a killer as a soldier in World War II. This isn’t the pure “good war” so often extolled in popular culture but a brutal affair in which Sheeran committed war crimes, including killing captured enemy soldiers. After the war, Sheeran works as a truck driver but finds upward mobility by being a goon in the service of Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, brilliantly combining a chilly, understated manner with the eyes of a killer) and Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, whose flamboyance marks him off from the reticence of almost everyone else in the movie).

In his first conversation with Sheeran, Hoffa recruits the driver into his labor battles by asking, “You wanna be a part of this fight? Would you like to be a part of this history?” It’s precisely history that’s at stake in The Irishman. The movie highlights a wide swath of postwar history: the 1950s investigations into labor racketeering, Robert Kennedy’s war with Hoffa, the CIA’s use of the Mafia in attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Watergate, and Hoffa’s disappearance. Repeatedly, the movie shows that corruption is endemic to the system and rooted ultimately in an elite, made up both of respectable citizens and criminals, who are addicted to empire.

Francis Ford Coppola originally wanted to hand off the job of directing Godfather II to Scorsese. In many ways, The Irishman is the Godfather sequel Scorsese never got to make. Scorsese occasionally even musically alludes to the Godfather soundtrack’s signature violin dirge.

One important commonality is that in both Godfather II and The Irishman, the Cuban revolution is the foil to the gangsters that helps clarify the fundamentally counterrevolutionary nature of the Mafia. In a 1979 essay, the critic Fredric Jameson observed that Godfather II tracked the merging of the Mafia with corporate capitalism, and observed: “The climactic end moment of this historical development is then reached (in the film, but also in real history) when American business, and with it American imperialism, meet that supreme ultimate obstacle to their internal dynamism and structurally necessary expansion which is the Cuban Revolution.”

Counterrevolutionary violence is a thread running through the Godfather movies. In The Godfather, Don Barzini says he’s happy to pay Don Corleone for his services because, “after all, we are not communist.” When the young Michael Corleone is in Sicily in 1947, he sees a May Day March of the Italian Communists heading towards Portella della Ginestra. This is an allusion to a real life incident in which Communists were massacred there by the Mafia. (This scene was cut from the theatrical release of the film but later included in an extended TV version.) A decade later, Corleone is impressed by the heroism of the Cuban radicals, whose revolution brings to an end Mafia domination.

In The Irishman, Bufalino is eager to help the American government get “rid of that fucking Castro prick.” When Hoffa tries to take back control of the Teamsters, a crook complains, “I mean, who does he think he is? Castro?” The very mention of the Cuban revolutionary breaks Bufalino’s preternatural calm, causing his face to cloud over.

In the Godfather movies and The Irishman, the Mafia is not just criminal but also counterrevolutionary, often in alliance with reactionary political forces. This goes well beyond Cuba. In the 1950s, Sheeran does Hoffa a favor by breaking up a cab union that has lesbian members. The attempt by gangster Joe Gallo to work with black criminals revolts the other mobsters. A banquet honoring Sheeran is attended by Frank Rizzo, a Philadelphia mayor whose racism and right-wing populism anticipated Donald Trump’s.

Perhaps to make sure that there are no Roger Stones in the audience who take his characters as figures to emulate, Scorsese hammers home in The Irishman the terrible toll of this corrupt way of life. The famous Mafia commitment to family values is shown to be hollow. Sheeran’s daughters hate and fear him because they live in the shadow of his violence.

The Irishman has been criticized for giving only a handful of lines to the angriest of the gangster’s daughters, Peggy Sheeran (splendidly performed with muffled rage by Anna Paquin). But this is a very deliberate choice.

There is a spectrum of vocal expressiveness in the movie. On the one end, there is Hoffa, a public orator and private loudmouth who lets his feelings hang out. About Hoffa, Bufalino says, “He likes to talk to talk, don’t he?” In fact, it’s precisely because Hoffa is too boisterous that he has to be silenced (a fate also shared by publicity hound Gallo). At the middle end of the spectrum are the regular mob guys like Bufalino and Sheeran. They speak in hushed tones, elliptically but with intent. Two of the gangsters are even nicknamed “Whispers.” And at the far end of the spectrum are the women, who live in near monastic silence.

The two ends of the spectrum mirror each other: The chatterboxes are silenced by murder; the women experience a living death by enforced voicelessness. The Irishman is a powerful movie, a harrowing story of one man’s personal damnation, but also a sweeping indictment of how corruption infests all levels of society.

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