The first thing to know about “The Irishman” is that it is 3.5 hours long. That has been much of the conversation surrounding the film since before its limited release in theatres last year and especially after it went live on Netflix a month later. When I brought it up around Christmas, I found I was the only member of my family to have gotten through the whole movie. Upon learning that I had watched it in full, they all had the same question, is “The Irishman” worth the full watch? I believe it is, but not simply because it is a good movie.
I love a historical epic. The scale of movies like “Spartacus,” “Schindler’s List” or “Gangs of New York” blow me away and cater perfectly to the history nerd in me without sacrificing a good story. This is something “The Irishman” does really well. Directed by Martin Scorcese, the film centers on Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a truck driver who climbs up the ranks as a hitman under mob boss Russel Buffilino (Joe Pesci) and at the same time works for high ranking member of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Working for Hoffa’s Teamsters and the mob bring Sheeran great wealth and respect, but at a great personal cost. The story also explores the circumstances surrounding Hoffa’s mysterious and still unsolved 1975 disappearance.
Sheeran’s life experiences build up over the first three hours of the film and come to a crashing halt as the last half hour of the film explores who we are when nothing is left for us but death. This idea makes the movie more than a play-by-play of historical events. Through DeNiro’s performance, we can see how living with one’s actions can weigh on the soul and haunt our past, present and future. Sheeran’s story is more than another Scorcese mob movie. It explores how we must lose friendships, family and life itself in the end. But of course, to get to that emotional punch at the end of the movie, you have to sit through three hours of unions and criminals in Philadelphia. And it is in that mob and union intrigue where we are treated with a filmmaker and his collaborators in their prime.
Widely considered the greatest living American filmmaker, Martin Scorcese provides some of his greatest hits with “The Irishman.” His long, sweeping tracking shots remain iconic while being the perfect way to establish an environment and pull the audience in. The man has a mastery of the camera like no other yet balances his storytelling out with the brilliant actors with whom he collaborates.
Joe Pesci and Al Pacino are especially dynamic as Russel Buffulino and Jimmy Hoffa, respectively. Pacino plays his typical loud man in charge with force when needed but is able to expose the cautious sides of a powerful man like Hoffa in a believable way. Moving from his bombast to insecurity never feels like whiplash, which is what can happen with those kinds of performances. Speaking of whiplash, let’s talk about Joe Pesci as Russel Buffulino. This role is unlike anything I have ever seen Pesci do. His portrayal of the mob boss is cool yet kind, but with a serious firmness underlying his every word. It is a far cry from his acting oeuvre of playing “angry lil’ man.” I was blown away. Then to round out our avengers assemble of Italian-American actors, DeNiro ties the whole thing together with a solid performance, though notably, one not nominated for a Best Leading Actor award at the Oscars.
But here is the biggest reason to watch this movie: watch “The Irishman” because you can. I have spent every year of my little pop culture fiend life chasing the opportunity to watch these “prestige award season films” just to find that I would have to spend roughly $100 on movie tickets to see all the Best Picture nominations before the Oscars, not to mention the popcorn budget. But this is changing. Two Best Picture nominations (“The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”) from Hollywood mainstay directors were released on Netflix this past year in addition to a small theatrical showing. This is a huge shift in Hollywood and makes movies that have been considered “elite” in many ways accessible to anyone who is a parasite on their parents’ subscription. Think of “The Irishman” as a three-episode mob miniseries and binge it on Netflix! Expose yourself to quality filmmaking and acting. Why? Because you can! You might just end up enjoying it as much as I did.