“Old” is a dirty word. When I was in a college journalism class, I wrote a news story for an assignment, referring to my subject as “old” at one point. My teacher liked my piece, but he did have a note: “Be careful with adjectives like that — they can be very subjective.” Only then did I realize that my teacher, a veteran reporter and editor, was about 10 years older than the man I’d written about. He was basically telling me, “Watch who you’re calling ‘old,’ kid.”
I was 20 at the time; anybody past 45 was probably “old” to me back then. I turn 45 next year. I wish I could go back and smack younger me.
Martin Scorsese turns 77 next month, as vital and engaged a filmmaker as ever. From a lot of people’s perspective, he is, perhaps, “old.” But his terrific new movie, The Irishman, argues that age carries with it certain benefits — as well as severe perils. For decades, the Oscar-winning director has returned to the subject of organized crime, looking at the hoods and lowlifes who rise up the ranks, trying to stay a step ahead of the fuzz and their enemies. By and large, those films have been about young people: the kids of Mean Streets, that punk upstart Henry Hill in Goodfellas. They’re guys who have their whole lives ahead of them — provided they’re not gunned down, of course.
But The Irishman examines the mob from a different angle, from an older man who has, somehow, lived to see his golden years. In some ways, he’s among the fortunate ones — then again, considering what he’s done, you could view him as one luckless bastard. Scorsese has always identified with gangsters — he grew up around that world, although he never took part in it. With The Irishman, he says goodbye to the lifestyle with the kind of wisdom and apprehension that only comes from someone old enough to realize he has far more years in the rearview mirror than what’s ahead.
The film stars Robert De Niro, who recently turned 76, as Frank Sheeran, who died in 2003 at the age of 83. When we first meet Frank, he’s in a nursing home, probably in his late 70s or early 80s. Physically, he’s not in great shape, but mentally, he’s sharp, and he has a story to tell — the story of what he’s seen in his days with the mob. To someone off-screen, he starts to talk, and we cut to different stages of his life, with Scorsese using de-aging technology to make De Niro look far younger when Frank is, for instance, serving in World War II. The effect works decently well, but we never forget throughout The Irishman that, in every flashback, De Niro is closer to the age that Frank is in the “present” than he is in the past. This is the story of a younger man seen through the eyes of an older man.
As we’ll discover, Frank had a remarkable life, including becoming a close advisor to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, who’s 76), a powerful Pennsylvania mobster, and befriending Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s 79), the influential East Coast labor leader who went “missing” in 1975. There’s an ironic Forrest Gump-like quality to The Irishman, with Frank looking back at crucial moments in American history — JFK’s assassination, Watergate, the counterculture — but seen from the perspective of a lowly but brutally efficient mob hitman. Unlike that Robert Zemeckis film, however, there’s no sentimentality or heartwarming lessons. Frank has done terrible things, and it’s his curse that he has to live with them.
Scorsese’s films tend to be about unbridled young men with such single-minded focus that they don’t let morality, ethics or basic decency get in the way of their dreams. Whether it’s his mob pictures or Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy or The Wolf of Wall Street, his characters keep going until somebody stops them. But at the end of those stories, his protagonists — often based on real people — are never really “old.” The Jake LaMotta we see as a has-been in Raging Bull is only in his early 40s, just a few years older than Scorsese was when the movie came out. LaMotta’s spiritual despair was Scorsese’s — the director had been abusing drugs and dealing with some commercial flops — and so the film, in hindsight, felt like a midlife crisis. There was plenty of story left to tell.
What makes The Irishman so striking is that it’s a movie about a guy with very little story remaining. Frank will outlive his colleagues — who succumb to illness, or more often, “lead poisoning,” to use a colorful euphemism — and so his flashbacks are a kind of memorial to all the people he knows who have died. When new characters are introduced, a quick title card pops up, informing us when they’ll die and from what cause. There are several murders in The Irishman, always depicted with matter-of-fact coldness, but even the people who we don’t see whacked are, in a sense, dead men walking. Those title cards never let us forget that we’re all going to go sometime, and it makes the mobsters we meet feel insignificant — they’re all just bit players whose number hasn’t been called yet.
That frankness is something we rarely see in movies, which tend to depict death as exciting or tragic, usually linked to a spectacularly staged piece of violence. And that’s because they often occur in films made by “young” people, who (if they’re lucky) haven’t yet experienced much death in their own lives. They’re all more or less just plot points.
Not so in The Irishman. Scorsese’s flair behind the camera remains undiminished, but there’s very little noticeably bravura about this movie, as if he doesn’t have time to waste on anything so showy. People get killed, whether they deserve it or not, with a minimum of fuss. The starkness of the killing is the point — Scorsese wants death to sting, linger. And as Frank grows older, the anticipation around the deaths that will occur gets drawn out, just so that he can fully register his friends’ inevitable passing. It seems silly to worry about spoilers in a film about real people, but there is a sequence in The Irishman that might be the most pained in any Scorsese movie, precisely because of the slow buildup to a murder we know is coming. It feels like the work of an older director who is more clear-eyed about death — the finality and senselessness of it all. There’s a maturity, even a resignation, about mortality that Scorsese — never a glib filmmaker, even in his youth — has rarely displayed before.
The reason why older people hate hearing younger people’s definition of what qualifies as “old” — 40? 50? 60? — is that they don’t want to be judged by others’ criteria of what constitutes being past your prime, deserving to be put out to pasture. “Old” means “over,” which sounds like being terminated, and very few people are ready to accept that death sentence. No matter what our age, we’d like to think we have more to contribute, more to do. But in The Irishman, Scorsese and his stars — several of whom have been in his movies since the 1970s — allow themselves a brief moment to reflect on what the end could look like. And what emerges is a haunting portrait of how gaining perspective with old age does little to allay the regrets and disappointments you’re carrying around.
I imagine that some might view The Irishman as Scorsese’s expression of remorse for his previous mobster movies, which exuded vicarious thrills and were never as mournful as this one is. But that seems a bit simplistic of a reading. We can only be the age we are at whatever moment that we find ourselves, stuck with the inherent pluses and minuses of that particular time of life. What’s so valuable about The Irishman is that Scorsese has lived long enough to see the mob world from a different perspective than he did as a kid.
That’s nothing to regret — it’s a cheering indication that we’re never “old.” We can, and should, keep changing as we go through life. Otherwise, we die before we’re actually dead. Again, Scorsese turns 77 next month. Frank’s pitiful fate is not his. This singular American filmmaker has rarely been so alive.
Here are three other takeaways from The Irishman…
#1. I’m just like Jimmy Hoffa, who also got annoyed when people were late for meetings.
As played by Al Pacino, Jimmy Hoffa thankfully doesn’t have too many of the hoo-ha mannerisms that have crept into the Oscar-winning actor’s work of late. Still, the character has some interesting quirks:
Putting aside the ice cream love for a second, one of the more surprising elements of The Irishman is that a major plot point revolves around Hoffa being annoyed by someone being late to a meeting. He gets so annoyed, in fact, that he keeps bringing it up later in the movie. I had no idea Jimmy Hoffa was the original Larry David.
Apparently, the real Hoffa was a real stickler about punctuality. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Mafia, author Jerry Capeci notes that the union boss hated being late: He would excuse himself from conversations by saying, “I’ve got this meeting, and I’ve got to meet on time.” It’s presented as an amusing personal idiosyncrasy in The Irishman, but I very much relate. It drives me crazy when people are running late. Because if I went to the effort to be on time, you can, too.
Of course, that’s a pretty ungracious way to be in the world. Things happen out of people’s control — I ought to be more understanding. And I’ve certainly mellowed with age. After all, arriving to a meeting before the other person just means I have a chance to respond to emails or read an article. And our phones have definitely made waiting far less arduous.
That said, I’m very interested in the psychology of lateness — what’s going on inside the late person and the early person when tardiness occurs. Author and psychiatrist Neel Burton has written about being late, and the dynamic that gets triggered when someone shows up after they’re supposed to:
“To be five minutes late is not really to be late. Late is when people start getting annoyed. They get annoyed because your lateness betrays a lack of respect and consideration for them — and so they get more annoyed, and more quickly, if they are (or think they are) your social or hierarchical superiors. Unless you present a very good excuse for being late, preferably something that is out of your control (e.g., an elephant on the motorway), being late sends out the message, ‘My time is more valuable than yours,’ that is, ‘I am more important than you,’ and perhaps even, ‘I am doing you a favor by turning up at all.’ It is particularly rude to be late to a formal or important occasion such as a wedding or funeral, or one involving many parts and precise timings such as an elaborate dinner party or civic event.”
But Burton also explores why people run late. Maybe they don’t really want to be at the event, and unconscious lateness is their body’s way of telling them. Maybe it’s a passive-aggressive thing: The late person is mad at the person who showed up on time and wants to communicate that anger indirectly. (Because I was such a stickler for being early, a former girlfriend often ran late, I think, for this very reason.) And, it has to be said, these dynamics can work the other way, too: Someone who always shows up early might want to make other people feel inferior or not as competent: I got here before you did.
No wonder Hoffa got so pissy: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a meeting is always about way more than just a meeting. There’s a delicate power play at work.
#2. Here’s my favorite cameo in the movie.
Some cameos are meant to be spotted — Hey, look, there’s Alfred Hitchcock walking across the frame in his own movie — while others are a lot subtler. A great example of the latter occurs in The Irishman during two very short baptism scenes. I am part of a very small percent of people who will see this movie and go, “Oh wow, it’s Father James Martin.”
For those unaware, Martin is a Jesuit priest who preaches tolerance and inclusivity, a quality you don’t always see in men of the cloth. He tweets about sexual abuse in the church and advocates for women to serve as religious leaders. He supports LGBTQ+ rights. But if you’ve heard of him and you’re not religious, it’s probably because, for years, he served as the unofficial chaplain of The Colbert Report, hosted by Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. Their lively conversations about faith, both on that Comedy Central show and subsequently, have made Martin a pseudo-celebrity among progressive Christians and non-Christians alike.
Martin is the kind of religious person I love: humble, loving, open-minded, earnest but also funny. He’s also a bit of a dork, which makes his interactions with Colbert all the more endearing. (He’s a deft straight man.) He’s known Scorsese for a little while: He served as a consultant on the director’s intense portrait of Jesuit priests, Silence. But The Irishman is his first appearance in a narrative film, albeit briefly. It’s probably just as well — wouldn’t want stardom to go to his head.
#3. Remember when Scorsese directed a Michael Jackson video?
In the 1980s, Michael Jackson wasn’t just a major pop star — he was one of the kings of the music video, producing epic clips for his songs that were like mini-movies. Most people think of his John Landis-directed video for “Thriller,” but for the follow-up album Bad, he was just as ambitious for the title track. And he got Martin Scorsese to direct it.
Scorsese wasn’t entirely a novice when it came to marrying music and images: By that point, he’d made New York, New York and the concert film The Last Waltz. But in Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, 1958-2009, writer J. Randy Taraborrelli points out that Jackson actually wanted George Lucas or Steven Spielberg to shoot “Bad.” (He’d previously worked with Francis Ford Coppola for Captain EO.) It was Jackson’s producer Quincy Jones who suggested Scorsese, even though the only Scorsese movie Jackson had seen at that point was New York, New York.
The collaboration didn’t go smoothly. According to Taraborrelli, “From the start, there were problems on the set, especially when Michael tried to tell Scorsese how to direct the video. According to a friend of Scorsese’s, the filming of ‘Bad’ was ‘a nightmare.’ Scorsese has said that the cost of the production went ‘two or three times over budget,’ reaching about two million dollars.” Another fun fact about the video: Wesley Snipes, who plays a tough guy trying to push around Jackson, beat out Prince for the part.
Unlike “Thriller,” “Bad” was never a beloved video. No matter how hard Scorsese and his frequent cinematographer Michael Chapman tried to make Jackson look like a badass, it just seemed silly. When “Weird Al” Yankovic made his parody video, “Fat,” it perfectly punctured the pretentiousness of Jackson’s video — even winning the Grammy for Best Concept Music Video.
For his part, Scorsese has never publicly badmouthed the experience or Jackson. After the singer died, the director remembered Jackson, saying, “When we made the ‘Bad’ video, he was open to everything. … The main thing that struck me was the extraordinary power of his almost shamanistic persona. I was mesmerized by his dancing. In the first shot, when his face is looking up toward the camera, there was a sense of loneliness and victimization. Those images had a resonance to them.”
Still, it seems unlikely that “Bad” shows up in many Scorsese tribute reels. Lord knows he has far greater highlights in his career.