Directed and produced by Martin Scorsese •
Screenplay by Steve Zaillian, from Charles Brandt’s
book, I Heard You Paint Houses • Distributed by Netflix
Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by Martin Scorsese • Screenplay by Paul Schrader •
Distributed by United Artists
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams • Produced
by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot • Distributed by Walt
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has been hailed in many quarters as a triumph, a return to the early movies of his career that made his reputation as the preeminent director of mob cinema. I wonder, is this a desirable accolade? Speaking for myself, I’ve had quite enough mafia-inflected entertainment.
In The Irishman, Scorsese has doubled down on his cinematic staple. He gives us a slow, bloated three-and-a-half-hour narrative of mayhem and murder surrounding the hypothetical assassination of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. The account is founded upon a highly questionable as-told-to book written by Charles Brandt, who supposedly got the story from a former Teamster official named Frank Sheeran who claimed to have shot Hoffa and had his corpse cremated. According to FBI agents and journalists who have researched Hoffa’s life, Sheeran concocted his story in his old age in the hope his whopper would make money. And it has, albeit posthumously. Sheeran died in 2003.
The Irishman purports to be an account of Sheeran’s career as a Mafia thug and hit man. It’s structured as a rambling “confession” Sheeran made in 1980 to Brandt, who published it under the title I Heard You Paint Houses— “painting houses” being a mafia expression for performing contract murders.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Filmmakers who portray historical events notoriously adhere to Maxwell Scott’s somewhat enigmatic advice in the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Examples abound. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite (2018) depicts Queen Anne letting 17 bunnies run about Kensington Palace, despite there being no reference to such indulgence coming down to us from the early 18th century. Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (2017) has a scene in which Winston Churchill rides the London Underground in 1940, and asks passengers for their thoughts concerning making peace with Hitler. This fiction allows Wright to make the prime minister seem a fully democratic man of the people, which he certainly was not—nor is it likely he ever rode the Underground.
Of course, many would say that audiences should not expect films to be factually accurate and settle for judging them on their merits as entertainment. But this opens the way to a wide swath of mischief. By some accounts, for instance, over 60 percent of Americans believe John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a New Orleans criminal conspiracy led by Carlos Marcello, as portrayed in Oliver Stone’s film JFK (1991).
When directors replace fact with what turns out to be obvious falsehood, they contribute to general public cynicism. People become convinced there’s no truth to be had from seemingly official sources.
Will Scorsese’s film do any public mischief? For starters, it may well add cogency to President Trump’s charge that the public is being fed a constant stream of fake news. This doesn’t help the cause of whatever remains of our nation’s political comity.
Let’s put aside questions of fact for a moment. What of the film as entertainment? It’s sufficiently engaging for its first two hours, but strains one’s patience unendurably before it reaches its end 90 minutes later. Yes, the acting is impressive, especially Joe Pesci playing Russell Bufalino, a Pennsylvania mafia kingpin from the 1960s to the early 1970s, as well as British actor Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano, the New Jersey mob capo.
But the 79-year-old Robert De Niro is hobbled by the supposed marvels of a digital de-aging process, which was to have enabled him to play Sheeran as he appeared both in his youth and wizened old age. Instead, the film makes De Niro look as though he has stepped out of Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum, his face seemingly frozen, eyes perpetually glazed, and his expressions morbidly stolid. Throughout the film, he unvaryingly channels Cervantes’ knight of the woeful countenance. The few times he does smile, his eyes narrow to slits and his cheeks crease as though they’re about to crack under the strain of conveying emotion.
I suppose that this fakery coheres with the fakery of Sheeran’s account of his career. In his determination to follow Sheeran’s account, Scorsese has ignored the numerous debunkings of his tale, including reports from FBI agents who worked the case and several journalists who researched it, one of whom is Jack Goldsmith, the stepson of Hoffa henchman Chuckie O’Brien. In a long article in The New York Review of Books published in the Sept. 26, 2019, issue, Goldsmith convincingly disproves Sheerhan’s claim that his stepfather conspired in Hoffa’s killing. Goldsmith reports that FBI agents performed a DNA analysis of blood from the supposed murder house in the film and found it wasn’t Hoffa’s.
Sheeran seems to have assigned himself the role Robert Duvall played in The Godfather. He presents himself as the outsider who’s been granted insider status by a friendly mafioso, Russell Bufalino, who saw value in his thuggery and willingness to murder when asked to do so.
This is unfortunate, not only for its tendency to erode public trust, but also because it casts doubt on the veracity of a much better biopic Scorsese made in 1980, Raging Bull, which tells the story of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer whose masochism enabled him to succeed in the ring. LaMotta was noted for being able to absorb punishment from better practitioners of the sweet science, rendering his face that of a grotesque gargoyle. Raging Bull is an unsparing portrait of a man who, despite the ugliness of his life, was always inarticulately straining for sweetness and light. The soundtrack affirms this by including passages from the intermezzo of Pietro Mascagni’s languorously romantic opera Cavalleria rusticana. This is visually echoed by his longing for Vikki Lucien, the beautiful lower class blonde who became his second wife, played with a credible Bronx accent by Cathy Moriarty.
Raging Bull is no Rocky fantasy. De Niro shows us LaMotta as the drunk bully he became as he descended into debauchery after his fighting career. But Scorsese didn’t have De Niro resort to makeup or digital alterations. Instead, the actor force-fed himself to add 50 pounds to his modest frame and wore a simulation of a badly battered nose. In a word, he looked disgusting. Scorsese clearly wanted to render LaMotta as physically repulsive as he was morally. It works, but it also began a foolish trend. Think of all the actors over the past 40 years who have larded up to play their roles. All for art, I suppose.
The latest Star Wars film in theaters, The Rise of Skywalker, also attempts to rewrite history, albeit a fictional one. The film is disappointing from the get-go, signaled by the brief, moronic sentence shouted in its opening crawl: “The dead speak!” The exclamation point begs us to feel shocked.But Star Wars dead have been speaking since Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) was cut down by a lightsaber in 1977. This phrase is in remarkably bad taste considering the film resurrects the late Carrie Fisher through footage from prior films in a failed attempt to give closure to Princess Leia’s character. Taken on its own, that three-word sentence might seem exciting or chilling, but within the larger context of the Star Wars saga it is contradictory, hollow, and pointless. Much like the film itself.
Rise of Skywalker follows the travails of the fledgling Jedi Rey, (Daisy Ridley) and the scrappy Resistance led by Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as they battle Adam Driver’s conflicted Kylo Ren, who has aligned himself with the inexplicably alive Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The MacGuffin-focused plot flies by at light speed, never stopping long enough to let the audience notice its ever-widening cracks. Each scene exists in isolation with little connection to what came before and no bearing on what comes after. Consequences do not exist in that far-away galaxy.
The film is largely a reaction to its predecessor, The Last Jedi (2017), directed by Rian Johnson. Despite being a critical darling, the earlier film incensed a small yet strident portion of the series’ fanbase. Johnson had the audacity to suggest that Star Wars must evolve beyond the seductions of nostalgia, that our heroes can truly struggle and fail, that women can be powerful leaders, and that anyone can be a hero regardless of his or her lineage. That angry group of fans attacked the film, its director, and its stars online with a malicious campaign that continues to this day. The Rise of Skywalker is a litany of moments devoted to undoing Johnson’s work. The plot revelations and themes of The Last Jedi are either brushed aside or entirely reversed. “This is what you wanted, right?” Abrams seems to be asking at every turn of the story, hoping to appease those vitriolic fans.
We’re left with a movie that isn’t just a vapid spectacle, devoid of thematic import, but also one that is craven and spiteful, made to satisfy a minor yet voluble contingent of hateful internet trolls.