Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a gargantuan epic that clocks in at 209 minutes, the longest produced by the director and one of the longest mainstream films in decades. That it was released via Netflix instead of a mainstream studio points to why Hollywood is such an abysmal failure these days; the major studios all passed on the project owing to length and budget.
The film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver/hit man for Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and his intimate multi-decade relationship with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It takes place during the heyday of the American welfare state, spanning roughly 1950 to 1975. Scorsese uses Hoffa’s tenure to bookend a history of our social democratic golden age, creating an arc that links together important social forces in a way that has been ignored in presidential campaign news coverage, and by the film industry in general.
The cinematography is masterful, doused in crimsons (marking the social democratic carnation or bloodshed), golds (the hammer and sickle or payoffs), and dark blues and grays (tones predominant inside major factories during our manufacturing high point) that reflect these larger narrative contradictions. Several of Scorsese’s trademark camera techniques make an appearance but, interestingly, in a much more restrained fashion than in Goodfellas or Casino, indicative that the director is less interested in proving himself than he was 20+ years ago.
Louis Proyect wrote an interesting review, noteworthy for its biographical insights about Hoffa’s tutelage by militant Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs. Simultaneously, a bevy of articles are being published online that peck at the historical accuracy of the picture. (Sheeran was by all accounts a two-bit thug who changed his story multiple times in order to get a book deal.)
While there’s plenty worthwhile to consider in those criticisms, these reviewers miss something important, particularly because the narrative is deeply indebted to Godard’s Breathless, a work told by unreliable narrators lacking any credibility. In fact, focusing on historical accuracy misses Scorsese’s major point entirely.
In the lineage of social democratic politics, there has been an interesting dialectic that has played out in the form of a polarization between what could be called a Left wing red terror and a Right wing organized crime tendency that emerges within the halls of power.
Grasping this dialectic is important because it seems to underwrite the narrative tension within the picture. It’s no accident that Hoffa appears in one scene wearing a red ushanka, the signature Soviet head wear.
Scorsese is articulating a gritty, bottom-up people’s history of the American welfare state, social democracy, and the tensions that maintained it during the three decades prior to the advent of neoliberalism. It is a truthful analysis of the postwar American social contract that is over-idealized by everyone from Democratic Socialists of America to Bernie Sanders as well as the Trump base.
A significant number of contemporary progressives sing hosannas about the period profiled in this film while refusing to concede those economic conditions only existed because of a tremendous level of state-sponsored and outsourced-but-endorsed violence. The racism, sexism, and homophobia of the period is subtly referenced in a fashion that demonstrates the painful burnt offerings required to hold taut the multiple strands of the social safety net, something borne out in Frank Sheeran’s final crucifixion by his heirs.
A further masterstroke in this critique of U.S. social democracy is how the project relates to imperialism and colonialism. A major segment of the picture is dedicated to reviewing the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, and finally the assassination of John F. Kennedy, implying the president was killed for betraying the mobsters shown delivering him pivotal Illinois Electoral College votes in the 1960 contest. The Batista dictatorship that ruled Cuba prior to Castro’s revolution was little more than a mob-owned fiefdom, one which Pesci’s character had a few fingers in. By linking these historical instances with the critique of our purported Happy Days, the picture offers an important rebuttal to contemporary social democrats who skirt discussing the Pentagon budget.
Scorsese’s warning here seems to be that the populist Left upsurge of the past several years must be certain to safeguard against the forces that compromised Hoffa, namely the underlying racism, mob corruption, venal individualism, collaboration in imperialism, and refusal to accept the New Left insurgency that created one of the openings for the neoliberal strip mining of the social democratic project.
Simultaneous with the Hoffa era in Italy and France, where respective Communist Parties never faced a McCarthy witch hunt era, auteurs like Fellini and Truffaut created classic works a young Scorsese took directorial cues from which continue to inform his artistic process. These pictures carried within a substantial critique of the dirty deal made in the aftermath of fascism’s defeat that exchanged Global Northern luxury for Global Southern imperial conquest, many times under the auspices of opposition to “Communism.” That violence of hyper-exploitation and domination was made manifest domestically in the way the AFL-CIO maintained segregation in its ranks, demonstrated in the vanilla palate of crowds Hoffa bombastically pontificates to onscreen, which at one point is compared to his equally-verbose antithesis Castro.
Today, the union movement (and the American welfare state) are in tatters, a pale doppelgänger of where they stood when Hoffa seemingly evaporated in 1975. The tragedy of this epoch would be the failure to heed the real lesson of the Sheeran-Hoffa biography, that American social democracy’s collaboration with imperial plunder was at the root of its ultimate undoing and rebuilding the welfare state will require a new politics that militantly repudiates those compromises.