Updated: Jan 4, 2020
To paraphrase, Friedrich Nietzsche, morality comes in two flavors.
There is the Judeo-Christian-based form that favors moral kindness and empathy among its values. And then there is what Nietzsche called "master morality," defines loosely as values based on power and pride in oneself. If one succeeds, one is moral. Virtue goes to the strong-willed and is measured only by what is good to the individual, not what is right or wrong.
Martin Scorsese's deep but unsettling film The Irishman works more by master morality. The mob-soaked characters have a unique code of honor: whatever preserves your sense of self, your power, your respect and your relationships is all that is valued. It explains the need to "disappear" opponents who disagree with you or to act in a corrupt manner as long as it keeps you on top.
That tradition in mob movies dates back a long time. In the 1930s, James Cagney's White Heat, for instance, showed a mobster who justified killing as a means to support his mother. The final shootout is punctuated by the famous line, "I'm on top of the world, Ma," as he goes down in flames.
Scorsese works from a similar tradition -- morality as a slippery slope but one that has its own playground rules. Whether it's the partying entrepreneur in The Wolf of Wall Street, the characters crossing allegiances and alliances in The Departed, the mob as family depicted in Goodfellas, or the abusive boxer in Raging Bull, his characters are highly flawed and more than a wee bit unlikable on the surface. But dig a little deeper, and each one just is playing with a different set of house money, a moral code that values power as righteousness.
That subtext surrounds The Irishman and its updating of the James Hoffa mythos. Hoffa was the powerful (and power hungry) head of the Teamsters union who controlled trucking routes necessary to deliver goods. As played by Al Pacino in his usual high-testosterone, high-volume expansiveness, the character is a passionate, emotional powder keg who has won over his followers by charisma, vocalizing the need for solidarity.
He is also mobbed up, funneling pension fund investments back to underworld activities while attempting to maintain his own independence from mob control. It is a treacherous cliff, one that the movie asserts eventually leads to his own "disappearance" in 1976.
But this is Robert De Niro's film. Like Pacino, De Niro can also emote like a champion. But here, he is a semi-laconic tough guy, a servant of the mob and not a boss. He follows quotidian orders without much regret or trepidation. In this case, he is paid to kill, set fire on opponent's warehouses, launder money and do whatever it takes to support his own rise to respectability. He does it without considering moral consequences, at least until Hoffa comes along.
De Niro's character, Frank Sheeran, wrote a book outlining his dealings with Hoffa. In the movie, he is torn between two allegiances. His mentor, played by Joe Pesci in a long-awaited return to the screen, is Russell Bufalino, a mob fixer who knows everyone and keeps the money flowing. He employs Sheeran to do his bidding. Sheeran does it willingly, without remorse, even when shooting a rival at point blank range or blowing up a building.
Sheeran is dispatched by Bufalino to keep an eye on Hoffa. He becomes his confidant, listening to Pacino's blowhard rants and paranoid fears and even sleeping in the same hotel room on trips. Hoffa trusts Sheeran implicitly, a move not really wise considering Sheeran's background. Sheeran comes to revere Hoffa but knows that the Teamsters head's time could soon be up.
Hoffa is a doomed character who is also conflicted. He wants mob help but not too much. He insults a rival boss, even wrestling with him on the floor of a prison cafeteria. He withholds money wanted by the mob for other investments. He becomes a liability. And Sheeran knows that he is at the center of the situation, even while being a bit of a cipher and a bystander to others' shadowy designs.
The movie is unlike Scorsese's other mob films. It does not revel in murder or spend time on buildups to killings. Instead, De Niro is just a good soldier. When he shoots an opponent, he doesn't regret it or discuss his feelings. Like Tony Soprano, Sheeran is just doing what's needed to help the business run smoothly and to support his family.
The movie is told in flashbacks, with De Niro now an old man in a nursing facility with few friends or family. He is alone after a lifetime of helping others. Scorsese jumps in time to show Sheeran's career, interspersed with what will prove to be a fateful road trip with Bufalino and the pair's wives. Dialogue is sparse except for the long talks between Pacino and De Niro, two heavyweights that are a joy to watch together.
Scorsese's camera snakes around corners and between rooms to show action, allowing us entry into a different world where morality is honor.
In some ways, Scorsese's Irishman is the inverse of his last movie, Silence. Little seen outside of the art film circuit, that movie depicts a Jesuit priest (Andrew Garfield) who refuses to renounce his religion after being captured in 17th century Macau and must die for his stubbornness. This is morality based on right and wrong at the point of death.
The Irishman is similarly strong-headed, with Hoffa refusing to bend completely to mob needs and paying the ultimate price for it. But he is no saint -- he rigs juries and bullies opponents equally to fuel his rise. However, he is proud of his independence. Pacino plays him as a bit of a man-child, reveling in eating ice cream with Sheeran's daughter, who reveres Hoffa but hates her father's dubious line of work.
Much has been written of the film's use of camera trickery to make the aging De Niro and Pesci look younger and more virile. It doesn't work well - their skin has the roughness of an alligator when it should be smooth. But it doesn't detract from the movie; imagination can substitute well.
It is a bit of a shame that the film is streaming on Netflix after only a limited theatrical run, where its slinky camera work could be shown off. However, Scorsese has said that without Netflix's investment, the movie could not have been made. Whether that's a commentary on the fate of the modern movie business -- where only big action movies get funded -- is a discussion for another day.
But watch The Irishman for how it captures moral issues, how it makes the violent events of mobster culture seem necessary and even routine, how it handles the joining of two of the world's most decorated movie actors (along with Pesci, who is brillantly affable and deadly in the movie). It is another in a long line of great mobster films.