Cultural football, thy name be The Irishman.
From the moment Martin Scorsese dared criticize the Marvel Cinematic Universe – declaring that the single most influential film franchise of all time does not actually qualify as cinema – his then-upcoming Netflix film The Irishman was guaranteed to be a topic of intense debate. What does The Irishman have that Avengers: Endgame doesn’t, or so a certain line of thinking would go.
The Irishman, however, didn’t need that kind of profile-raising controversy to generate conversation. It was already doing that all on its own, and as it barrels toward a likely deep run at Oscar glory it will continue to do so well into next year. Like millions of others, I watched it over Thanksgiving. It’s a fascinating movie, both a love letter to and obituary for the gangster genre. Yet, I’ve found the conversation around The Irishman almost more entertaining. Not all of the takes out there have been well-argued. In fact, many have not. However, what is happening with The Irishman is rather instructive for the state of cultural criticism in 2019.
What The Irishman is about
In a story that spans decades and features multiple flashbacks and time jumps, Frank Sheeran (De Niro) works his way up from delivery truck driver to union leader in Philadelphia, mentored by mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci at his most restrained) and later by International Brotherhood of Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino at max-”hoo-ha!”). However, when the mob’s alliance with Hoffa weakens Sheeran is forced to pick a side, a decision that will haunt him to the day he dies and forever strains his relationship with his four daughters, particularly Peggy (Anna Paquin).
Dubbed, somewhat derisively by some, as Goodfellas: The Retirement Home Years, the film does ultimately look at the other side of the gangster story, the part where everyone you know is dead and the weight of your decisions finally catches up with you. Goodfellas has the iconic Copacabana Steadicam shot where Scorsese’s camera walks us through the preferred den of gangsters in their prime; The Irishman reserves such sweeping camera movements for explorations of an old mobster’s retirement home.
A formidable hitman in his heyday – the film’s alternate title, I Heard You Paint Houses, is a coded reference to the blood splatter left behind from Sheeran’s various murders – the 82-year-old version of the man is a rather pitiable figure. This Sheeran is physically and emotionally hobbled, isolated from his family, and stuck spinning stories about the great Jimmy Hoffa to polite, but disinterested healthcare workers. The accumulation of one man’s life, turns out, doesn’t amount to much much when you set the wrong priorities.
How it became such a lightning rod
It’s a 210-minute epic using mostly convincing digital de-aging technology to allow De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to move through the story without worrying about little things like old-age make-up. It’s a gangster movie about a Forrest Gump-like side figure who improbably floats from one major mob moment to another – Sheeran, for example, is shown to have played a small role in facilitating the Cuban Missile Crisis – before being asked to kill his best friend, the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. Very little of that is backed up by the evidence, yet Scorsese and company present it as irrefutable historical fact. It’s a Netflix movie that cost somewhere around $170 million to make, and as a Netlflix production it will only ever play in a handful of theaters and we’ll never know how many people actually watched it all the way through. It is so male-dominated that Paquin only gets 7 lines.
Just about every single part of that relates to various, distinct hobby horses for cultural critics right now. It touches on prevailing business and tech trends, reignites the debate over how male auteurs treat female characters (see also: Tarantino and Margot Robbie), speaks to the shifting ways in which we consume media, reflects Hollywood’s ongoing fight against historical fact, and represents the final stand of not just a genre, not just the idea of a bloated historical epic film in the age of peak TV, but also some of the most iconic voices in all of film over the last half-century.
There’s just so much to unpack:
(Deep breath) The Irishman is crazy long, uses de-aging technology in a way and scale we’ve never quite seen before from an Oscar contender, only exists because of Netflix’s bottomless long-term debt financing, likely represents one last ride for the legendary trio of Scorsese, Pesci, and De Niro (Harvey Keitel, a frequent Scorsese co-star, is also in there in a small role), relies on source material – Charles Brandt’s 2004 non-fiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses – that is probably 70% bullshit, purposefully minimizes its female characters in a way sure to earn the ire of those always critical of Scorsese’s depiction of women, and comes with the request that we watch it a certain way (Exhale).
Netflix vs. theater owners, the cosmic ballet goes on
On that last point, Scorsese and Netflix reportedly believed their combined power could force the AMCs and Regals to relent and allow The Irishman to play in the biggest theater chains in the world; instead, the anti-Netflix bias persisted, leaving Scorsese – about as big of a cineaste as there’s ever been – to cope. Sure, select indie theaters around the country played Irishman just as they played Roma last year, but it was far from a wide release. (Netflix and theater owners ended up sniping at each other in the press over the impasse.)
Then Trump’s Justice Department, as part of its widespread deregulation agenda, completely dropped the decades-old law forbidding movie studios from owning theaters for the express purpose of exhibiting their own films. A week later, Netflix bought New York City’s iconic Paris Theater and promptly put The Irishman up on the marquee.
There’s a lot going on there that has very little to do with the actual film but still works to keep it going in the conversation.
A masterpiece in a year of many
Those who chose to focus on the actual film itself, such as all the critics who attended The Irishman’s domestic and international premieres at the New York Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival, quickly took to social media to anoint it as an outright masterpiece. That is the highest of all film critic compliments, yet one which seems to be handed out quite frequently these days. See also: Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Marriage Story, to name a few.
Perhaps 2019 has simply been an unusually, but quite genuinely strong year for film. Perhaps the ongoing existential crisis facing both the film industry and business of film criticism both inspires and incentivizes the most passionate response possible. Either way, the early word on The Irishman set expectations sky-high. Those expectations have since been validated by awards bodies. The Irishman has been named movie of the year by the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle and made the AFI’s annual top 10 list. It’s still racking up the nominations everywhere else.
However, if you can think back to Thanksgiving when The Irishman first arrived on Netflix it came with the only the word of film festival audiences that we were all in store for a masterpiece – a masterpiece in a year of many, from the guy who doesn’t care for Marvel movies, has a troubled history with female characters and had to partner with Netflix because Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about cinema anymore. It was a recipe for hot take city.
Everyone has their own take
So, that’s exactly what happened. Netflix dropped the film over Thanksgiving, and the internet promptly responded with attention-grabbing takes. Accusations of sexism over Paquin’s lack of dialogue came fast and curious. A certain “okay, boomer” contingent delighted in posting pictures of themselves watching the film on their phone or whatever other device Scorsese had expressly asked them not to use. Charts were created to explain how best to chop the film up into four distinct episodes so that viewers could treat it like a mini-series and spread their viewing out over multiple sittings. Some went even further and offered suggestions for scenes could have been trimmed or cut entirely, presenting their criticism as the type of notes Netflix clearly chose not to offer for fear of upsetting Scorsese.
There were, it should be noted, many who merely offered up funny Irishman memes and gifs and moved on. Many more found the cultural noise and extreme runtime too confusing/intimidating and bowed out. However, for the purists, those who genuinely criticized The Irishman’s length or female representation crossed a line.
So, on came the defenses of The Irishman. There is hardly a soul alive qualified to teach Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker – his longtime collaborator – anything about editing! Anyone claiming the film is too long, well, that’s somebody whose opinion doesn’t matter to me, or so I saw many argue on Letterboxd and heard hosts Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins argue on The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast.
And counting up Paquin’s lines is a complete misreading of the story – she has so few lines because Frank’s poor life choices alienated his daughters. In a film about living long enough to regret your mistakes and struggle to atone, it is integral to the story that the lead character can’t even get his daughter to talk to him. This is Scorsese using silence to dramatic effect much as he did in his last film – you know, the one literally called Silence.
I generally agree with all of those defenses, although any kind of film purist stance that we must watch The Irishman in one sitting and on the biggest screen feels like a lost cause. Also, while Irishman is exactly as long as Scorsese wants it to be I do wish there was maybe more of the scenes with the 82-year-old Sheeran and a little less of the endless mob movie machinations. The two sections inform each other, but the former feels genuinely new for Scorsese whereas some of the latter material feels overly familiar to me. Plus, given the sometimes episodic nature of the plot, I must admit my mind did start wondering how this could have been done as a limited series instead of film.
One person who never had that problem: Scorsese.
If Scorsese had wanted The Irishman to be shorter or work as a mini-series, that’s what he would have done. The man, we shouldn’t forget, has produced plenty of television over the years. (Remember Boardwalk Empire?) He could have gone that route here, but he didn’t. There’s a reason for that. As he told EW:
“You could say, ‘This is a long story, you can play it out over two seasons’ — I saw somebody mention that. Absolutely no. I’ve never even thought of it. Because the point of this picture is the accumulation of detail. It’s an accumulated cumulative effect by the end of the movie — which means you get to see from beginning to end [in one sitting] if you’re so inclined. A series is great, it’s wonderful, you can develop character and plot lines and worlds are recreated. But this wasn’t right for that.”
The more cinephiles insist something is a masterpiece out of passion or naked, SEO-inspired self-interest the more the internet will respond with derision and “I don’t get what the fuss is about” confusion. That’s the way it has always been; our ability to disappear into social media bubbles has only made it worse. Plus, the more filmmakers insist their product be consumed a certain way the more a certain contingent will respond with spite. One of the greatest filmmakers of all time may have just made a work of real cinematic genius, but the mere fact that many think The Irishman could have been cut into individual episodes – even if they’re completely wrong about that, it still indicates just how much cultural ground film has yielded to TV. That’s the paradigm more people recognize now, not film.
Still, there is something to Netflix’s consistent ability to steer certain projects to the top of the cultural conversation. Just a week after social media was awash with The Irishman reactions, for example, the same thing happened again with Marriage Story. I don’t know if that happens with a traditional theatrical release.
Since everyone has their own take, here’s mine for The Irishman: it’s at its most interesting in the final 20 minutes, the section where Sheeran pays for his sins and his old friends finally confront mortality. You have to sit through three hours of preamble to get there, but it’s not like those three hours are torture. Instead, it’s three hours of Scorsese recreating some of his greatest mob movie hits with the assistance of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino – all of them upping their game in ways we haven’t seen in years. That lends The Irishman the occasional appearance of a Goodfellas or Casino but the tone and wisdom of an old man reflecting on mistakes. It’s a movie only Scorsese could have made, and while I wasn’t quite moved by it the way others have been I love that it exists.
There’s no direct profit in making a movie like this, and the cultural noise it has created might not actually do much for Netflix’s subscription figures. But good on them for taking such a big swing with The Irishman. It might just bring them their first Best Picture Oscar. Personally, I’m rooting for Marriage Story. Either way, Netflix wins, and the internet will always have the memes to look back on.
That’s my take on The Irishman and the cultural conversation around it. What’s your take? Let me know in the comments.