Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2019

The Irishman

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,Kevin Coogan,trade unions — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm


Two days ago, I received a DVD for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that lets me off the hook. I will be nominating it for best film of 2019, with it even edging out some of the foreign language films I prefer. (The overhyped Korean film “Parasite” does not make the grade.) The title refers to Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American Teamster official with mob connections who confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Rounding out the major roles is Joe Pesci, who retired from acting in 1999. Scorsese and De Niro persuaded him to play Russ Bufalino, the mob boss whose brother Bill was the lead attorney for the Teamster’s union. These characters and just about every other featured in the film were historical figures. As is generally the case with Scorsese’s flicks about real people such as Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, et al., you’ll find few major fictional characters.

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  1. It is worth mentioning Sheeran’s favor done for Joe Biden when reviewing the movie.

    Comment by david mccullough — November 29, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

  2. Umberto’s was in Little Italy in Manhattan.

    Comment by Jim Luther — November 29, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

  3. I just saw ‘The Irishman’ and I appreciate Louis’ historical and contextual information to the film. Scorsese idolizes in romantic terms the anti-hero mobster (monster) who
    kills for a living. Wouldn’t a much better movie have included the Minneapolis take over by Hoffa from the socialists? Wouldn’t a much better movie have covered the losses of the truckers themselves whose pensions were stolen from them? Scorsese may indeed be (unintentionally?)documenting the end of empire, its rot from within the ranks of union leadership, in which the criminal represents our era–its nihilism, rugged individualism gone to seed. But Scorsese’s use of major American actors and $140 million in production costs lay the ground work for Oscar nominations. De Niro may have done his best work. But gee other than the women smokers and Hoffa’s wife, this patriarchal world of male combatants is a vacant land of useless violence and at the end of the day signifying nothing.
    Consider a more profound look at the same era as displayed in ‘Godfather of Harlem’ which features Italian mobsters, BUT it also displays the heroin epidemic perpetrated by the mobsters, and a much fuller and deeper representation of NYC. Thus Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and Adam Clayton Powell are prominently featured. Women characters play a critical role in multiple plot lines that cross each other creating a rich social tapestry.
    Scorsese’s vision pales in sharp contrast to ‘Godfather of Harlem,’ which attempts to capture the great social tensions of the era.

    Comment by Roger Marheine — November 29, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

  4. The film is good. But it should have given some background on Hoffa. And while it is a commonplace of analyses of Hoffa that it was pragmatic, and somewhat tragic, that he hooked in with the mob, I don’t see it this way. The Fur and Leather Workers Union, centered in NYC, defeated the mob, with pitched battles, led by radicals. And Dobbs et. al. in Minneapolis defeated to companies, the cops, and all the powers that be, without mobbing up. The Teamsters nationally could, I believe, have done the same. And not only that, when was there ever any real rank and file democracy in the Teamsters. Well, never would be the answer. And let’s look at another great US labor leader, John L. Lewis. A complex, mercurial man to be sure. But he managed to organize the coal industry, in company towns where grotesque living conditions and violence by coal and iron police reigned supreme. Where massacres of workers and their families were not uncommon. Lewis used Reds to organize, not mobsters, even though he was thoroughly anti-communist. I was born in a company town, which was, in effect, liberated by the UMW. Hoffa had such talent. It is a great tragedy he failed to put it to its best use, to help build a real working class movement. There are so many tragedies like this. Hoffa, Lewis, Cesar Chavez, Walter Reuther, and many, many more. It is a tough and hegemonic system we face. But still, within its context, choices are made. Which means different choices might have been made. And the outcomes might have been different.

    A minor point, I think Umberto’s Clam House is in Little Italy in Manhattan, not in Brooklyn.

    Readers here will also profit from reading Steve Early’s review of The Irishman. Steve was with the Teamster reform movement in the late 19070s and knew about the Irishman through conversations with union members who knew him and suffered under his corrupt and self-serving leadership. (BTW, Sheeran was 6’4″ and weighed 250 pounds). Steve says:

    “The deadly feuds and personal betrayals recounted in Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour film took place during the union’s scandal-scarred heyday, when Teamster clout could have been used for many good purposes, like improving truck driver safety.

    Once again, Hollywood fails to show how Teamster members were the most betrayed in that era — by lax contract enforcement, frequent violations of the Landrum-Griffin Act, outlandish Central States Pension Fund fraud, the looting of local union treasuries, and corrupt but perfectly legal practices that persist to this very day (like Hoffa’s awarding of multiple salaries to already overpaid, full-time Teamster officials to secure their political support).

    Also missing from The Irishman is any hint that threats, intimidation, and physical violence failed to deter the development of a Teamster reform movement, which is still alive and kicking today. That singular organizational achievement will be on display in Chicago, November 1–3, when several hundred leaders and activists from TDU chapters around the country gather for their 44th annual strategy session on union democracy and reform struggles in the IBT.”

    See https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/10/jimmy-hoffa-the-irishman-martin-scorsese-film-teamsters

    Comment by Michael D Yates — November 29, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

  5. I think the Smith Act which was used against the SWP role in the Teamsters preceded World War II. I’m not sure Hoffa “betrayed” Dobbs as I don’t see Hoffa as taking Trotskyism too seriously to begin with. Hoffa may well have taken the idea of meeting on time to heart from the Trotskyists, just not the theory of Permanent Revolution.

    I, too, failed to find much to admire in Hoffa, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac blinded by his original sin of thinking he could handle the mob. Frankly the more I watched the film the more I thought Hoffa came off as a jerk so consumed by his own legend that he could not take a hint. He never wanted to rid the union of the mob, he just wanted to renegotiate the cut so he could get back in the action.

    (As an aside, Stallone made a Hoffa film called F.I.S.T. that I remember as pretty good, although it’s been years since I’ve seen it.)

    I think The Irishman is a very good film but Pacino was miscast and it should have been 20 minutes shorter. It also has crackpot ideas such as the mafia put in JFK to invade Cuba and get back the casinos. Actually it was JFK who called off the Bay of Pigs, a plan that Nixon had backed when he was Ike’s VP. Why Scorsese had to go Oliver Stone for ten minutes eludes me. To me it was a needless distraction. Still, the scene where they hear JFK’s death on TV in the diner is beautifully designed.

    As for the performances, IMO Joe Pesci steals the film, although De Niro is impressive as always. The Irishman is made for adults, beautifully acted for the most part, and the design is truly spectacular. Scorsese can do the interior of restaurants like no other. (Motherless Brooklyn also has some great set design but not on the epic scale of The Irishman.)

    The scary fact is that Hollywood is so rotten that Scorsese seems the only director still around capable of pulling off such an epic mediation on American postwar history. There is a kind of organic quasi-Marxist historical vibe in him, something I think he inherited from his love of Italian neo-realism.

    But the thing I noticed most in The Irishman (as opposed to Goodfellas) is that although he does portray an era of the working class at its height of prosperity, I get the sense here that he finds that prosperity deeply vapid in a way that does not come across in Goodfellas, where he still sees the glamour and Sinatra-style swagger of the mob/Vegas ethnic flash big car vision of the American Dream. Here, in contrast, things feel much more subdued.

    Also he still can’t come up with a single interesting adult woman character even in cameo. I found the whole good daughter/bad father bit really tedious myself and bordering on “Hugo” sappy. “It’s my daddy/ he’s a mob assassin/ and I’ll cry if I want to” sappy. Yet another blunder in my opinion in part because the daughter is such a one-note. She may be cast as the Greek chorus/moral center; she comes off as a no fun sourpuss. Perhaps because the women are such washouts that the film feels so emotionally cold at its core. For a guy who loves Old Hollywood, Scorsese sure could have used at least one real dame somewhere in his three hour plus epic.

    Comment by HH — November 29, 2019 @ 8:48 pm

  6. I found the movie boring and bloated and pretentious .I also think Godfather of Harlem is much more worthy of praise than is The Irishman

    Comment by Steve Barr — November 29, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

  7. I first thought the Irishman referred to Frank Sheeran (of course not to Hoffa), but this explicit designation is given in the movie only to president Kennedy. At the least one can say that the assassination of Kennedy (and his election with mob help) is a major theme/subplot. The camera lingers long on Sheeran’s pensive face (in response to the news of the assassination), so we must take this as a hint that he’s connecting the dots that the mob was behind it. At the end of the movie, when Sheeran conveys the final threat to Hoffa, Hoffa dismisses the story (of the mob being behind the assassination) as a mere scare-tale (which the mob tells about itself to impress outsiders).
    Now I don’t think the mob precisely ordered the Kennedy assassination, but their guys were involved. And the Kennedy assassination is not only a major, but perhaps even the key point of the movie, which apparently is overlooked (because it is not expected in a mainstream/historical movie, and is not so on the nose like JFK). Also, the figure of Sheeran is not so historically important to name a movie after or devote a movie to (whereas it would be pretension to make a movie explicitly about Kennedy with such a title).

    Now about the assassination of Hoffa, it was an “inside-job” of sorts if Sheeran was indeed the killer (or even a mere facilitator). Louis brought up Trotsky, but the SWP always dismissed as rumor that Trotsky’s assassination occurred with the help of insiders. If Hoffa could even be killed by a person he so trusted, then why couldn’t a similar betrayal have happened with people close to Trotsky?

    Comment by Noa — November 30, 2019 @ 9:16 am

  8. The last great Scorsese movie was KUNDUN, despite its beatification of a divine right monarch. Visually amazing, and not as stupidly anticommunist as one might have expected–Robert Lin’s Mao is perfect.

    But for the life of me, I can’t see what you like about this movie. It is much less interesting than the information you and the commenters present about the Teamsters in this period. The movie itself is hobbled by Pacino’s hammy acting (why does he keep playing with his tongue while talking?), de Niro’s incessant mumbling, coy references to earlier gangster movies (Sheeran’s discussion of whether or not to to the bathroom and take a leak before assassinating an enemy in a restaurant), and recycled visual cliches–“hey, let’s ratchet up the lyrical portentousness by doing slo-mo shots of big, lumbering American cars, just like in TAXI DRIVER.” Joe Pesci and Stephen Graham (who was a fabulous Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) liven things up a little.

    But the asserted authentic core of Hoffa as a labor leader never gels: the Teamsters come off like idiot idolatrous sheep. This attitude toward workers keeps reminding me of the 1999 Oscars, where Scorsese and De Niro pimped for Elia Kazan, that rat (as Chris Rock, bless his heart, called him). It was great to see Nick Nolte, Vicki Lewis, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan in the audience, scowling, with their arms folded.

    Yet another Scorsese movie practically devoid of black people (do he and Woody Allen live in the same neighborhood?), and of decent roles for women.

    Martin Scorsese has the power and the money to make the great American Epic, JOHN BROWN’S DREAM. Or he could fund and film a version of the brilliant (and Mafia-free) Italian-American proletarian novel, Pietro di Donato’s CHRIST IN CONCRETE. Instead, he dodders off into another gangster pic. All this reminds me of Bobcat Goldthaite’s chagrined apology for starring in POLICE ACADEMY 3: “It was because there were so many questions left unanswered by 1 and 2.”

    Comment by jimholstun — November 30, 2019 @ 11:13 am

  9. Martin Scorsese has the power and the money to make the great American Epic, JOHN BROWN’S DREAM. Or he could fund and film a version of the brilliant (and Mafia-free) Italian-American proletarian novel, Pietro di Donato’s CHRIST IN CONCRETE. Instead, he dodders off into another gangster pic. All this reminds me of Bobcat Goldthaite’s chagrined apology for starring in POLICE ACADEMY 3: “It was because there were so many questions left unanswered by 1 and 2.”

    And Woody Allen can make a biopic about John Brown while he’s at it.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2019 @ 1:22 pm

  10. It was sad to come out of the three and a half hours of ‘The Irishman’. This last squeeze of the mafia ketchup bottle was a funeral for Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro, Pacino and the entertainment industry’s weary workhorse. The lively first part was simply a neat presentation of a series hit-jobs and exploding mob bombs. But the picturesque pops and flashes have lost their charm with repetition. We were willing to go along with the showcasing of De Niro. He deserved that. But the story should have ended with him faced with the hit-man’s dilemma of being ordered by one friend to kill another. That hard choice had a whiff of tragedy about it. Scorsese plowed on for another hour. Women hadn’t had much of a look-in so a couple of tokens were brought in to satisfy current exigencies. Then we had to watch the three sinking patriarchs getting even older. Did Scorsese believe there was a moral in this? If so it points to his chronic inability ever to handle the bigger human picture while demonstrating his technical brilliance. Watching the old boys fade out, we were less interested in their awry consciences than in advances in make-up art.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 30, 2019 @ 10:16 pm

  11. No, not John Brown for Woody; Charlie Brown.

    Quentin Tarantino spent time on a biopic of John Brown that never came off.

    Maybe that’s a good thing.

    Comment by HH — November 30, 2019 @ 10:32 pm

  12. Danny De Vito made his ‘Hoffa’ in 1992. I saw it a couple of years later in a provincial town in Bulgaria. The audience was a little perturbed by this slice of American life. Bread was short and they were being wooed by offers of a quiet life and more and better shopping in the Free World. I can’t recall the ideological slant. As in Scorsese’s take, the focus was on guns and murder. Jack Nicholson lay down a nerve-wracked Hoffa that Al Pacino would take on, plus ice cream. The lured characterization irked me. In my Chicago New Deal youth, Jimmy, looking the statesman, had been as real to me as FDR or Colonel McCormick, the villain who owned the ‘Trib’. My dad was union. That’s why we ate. The critics came down hard on De Vito’s effort. Maybe they wanted to forget about the teamsters.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 1, 2019 @ 10:23 am

  13. Some of these characters appear in doctored form in James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. To him, Hoffa was as big a scumbag as the mob bosses, but terrified of Giancana.

    Comment by ethanyoung11215 — December 1, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

  14. lured=lurid

    In the current NYReview of Books Daily, there’s a useful article by Jack Goldsmith, stepson of Hoffa’s driver: “Jimmy Hoffa and ‘The Irishman’: A True Crime Story?”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 2, 2019 @ 9:24 am

  15. “And Woody Allen can make a biopic about John Brown while he’s at it.”

    No, please no. I’m going to have nightmares about this.

    Actually, a film adaption of this alternative history novella would be interesting:


    Comment by Richard Estes — December 3, 2019 @ 4:00 am

  16. The working class doesn’t even appear in this 3 hour movie about Hoffa. There’s maybe 30 seconds of empty picket line footage, and that’s literally it. No other working class characters at all in the movie. What does it say of your socialist credentials that you praise this empty and inaccurate film?

    Comment by Tray Dee — December 5, 2019 @ 3:11 am

  17. I had to laugh about the TDU comment posted here. In the 1990’s, the TDU welcomed the bourgeois state to take over the union, which soon resulted in the government removing their candidate Ron Carey from the presidency of the union after he lead a national strike. Here we are in 2019, and the TDU just endorsed long time Hoffa Jr thug and junior partner Sean O’Brien who just a few years ago was verbally threatening the TDU. That’s some fucking “reform movement”!

    Comment by Tray Dee — December 5, 2019 @ 3:24 am

  18. I don’t remember one worker’s face in the scene of the teamsters’ conference. You saw a horde of bloated, sweating fanatics who looked like House Republicans. Scorsese was painting with too broad a brush. Of course there was sleaze at the top. That’s what the top is. But there was decency lower down.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 5, 2019 @ 8:47 am

  19. That a mob flick fetishizing good old American death by murder directed by an over-the-hill Scorsese and starring DeNiro, Pesci and Pacino playing geriatric versions of the characters they’ve been playing since the late-70s is Proyect’s choice for best movie of 2019 is telling. It suggests that his “unrepentant Marxist” schtick is in fact a lifelong adolescent fantasy rather than a serious commitment to socialist revolution. Kind of like an espionage enthusiast who lives vicariously through the characters in the spy novels, secret agent biographies, non-fiction spook lore and espionage and intrigue feature films and documentaries he devours on a daily basis. Just replace the haunted spies and conflicted secret policemen of the “unrepentant Secret Service Operative” with romantically flawed revolutionaries and tough guy “working class” heroes/mob hitmen – and, voila – you have the “unrepentant Marxist.”

    Proyect’s lament at the lack of female characters in a film centering around a mob killer in 1970s America is, however, understandable. (I recently enjoyed an excellent film about a group of Communist Party assassins in revolutionary China and while there was no dearth of quality women characters I must confess that I was a bit irked by the complete absence of non-Chinese actors. So, yeah, I get where you are coming from on this one, Louis.)

    Some overly politically correct types will no doubt question your sincerity here and point to that classic post of yours in which you offered your candid opinion on a certain female Assadist’s shag appeal (or lack thereof… hehheh) but that’s just humorless “SJW” posturing and not to be taken seriously. What next, a guy who dislikes former president Obama’s neoliberal policies and angrily shouts the N word to his face will get accused of being a racist? That’s crazy. I’m neither a misogynist nor a racist but I do think some people really need to lighten up and get a sense of humor.

    This being the festive season and all there are worse things than being a tone-deafllll champagne socialist who never gave up his youthful alpha man fantasies. We all have our goofy quirks – and that’s okay! Me, I have no shame admitting that I play down my intellectual genius when I’m online out of respect for the simpler, more earthen folks out there. It’s like that funny man who said “They laughed at me when I told them I want to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now are they!” Exactement mon ami, exactly my friend!

    Comment by Lyle Cooperman — December 7, 2019 @ 2:15 pm

  20. “Proyect’s lament at the lack of female characters in a film centering around a mob killer in 1970s America is, however, understandable.”

    I don’t recall saying anything about the lack of female characters. Perhaps you are thinking of Leroy Porceyt’s review in “Flick Philosopher”. I am often mistaken for Porceyt, especially by high school dropouts like you.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 7, 2019 @ 4:17 pm

  21. Some thoughts generated by the comments here:

    The movie is about Frank Sheeran, not Jimmy Hoffa or the labor movement. It’s “The Irishman,” not “The Pennsylvania Dutch American.” I haven’t read the book but I doubt Sheeran focuses much on organizing and picket lines. The history of Hoffa and the Teamsters is fascinating (I’m a Teamster myself and am reading about it in my spare time) but I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the working class and unions right now to remind everyone of the bad old days of mob influence. After decades of negative propaganda, we need to remind everyone of the good things like fair wages and worker camaraderie.

    Peggy Sheeran going silent and cutting Frank completely out of her life cuts him deeper than if she had confronted him or helped send him off to prison, which she had no power to do.

    John Brown deserves way better than a Ronald Reagan B-movie, but it would be near impossible to pull off and would be harshly criticized. Social conservatives would hate it because it encourages violence against cops. Liberals would hate it because it encourages direct action over civil debates and respectful discussion with slave owners. SJWs and BLM activists would call it a white savior movie. Who would be the best director? Scorsese has gravitas but he’s still a Hollywood liberal. Oliver Stone, Tarantino and Spike Lee are excessive. Werner Herzog, maybe? Most likely a European director.

    Comment by Calvin — December 8, 2019 @ 6:16 pm

  22. True. Scorsese is telling Sheeran’s story from Sheeran’s point of view. No objection to that though we should remember that Sheeran’s story is much contested as history. What Scorsese has failed to do is put it in a critical frame and make clear it’s one man’s take, his defense, as it were. I’d object as well to his smothering the story in gunplay. That was hardly “gravitas”.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 8, 2019 @ 7:12 pm

  23. True. Scorsese is telling Sheeran’s story from Sheeran’s point of view. No objection to that though we should remember that Sheeran’s story is much contested as history. But Scorsese failed to put it in a critical frame and make clear that it’s one involved person’s take on events, his defense, as it were, or how he wanted to be remembered. I’d also object to his smothering the story in gunplay. That was hardly “gravitas”.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 8, 2019 @ 7:28 pm

  24. I know I shouldn’t go doddering on about ‘The Irishman’, anyway not duplicating posts out of clumsiness. But still…Cosa Nostra seen from Italy is not how the U.S. entertainment industry sees it. Take Marco Bellocchio’s ‘Il Traditore’. It’s about a boss who turned-coat during the 80s war between factions for control of the international heroin trade. The film couldn’t escape being violent. The clans were out to annihilate each other. But when someone died we actually felt it. The dead criminals friends and family suffered. They not only wanted revenge. They grieved the person in the flesh. They wanted him there, beside them, and he was gone. Death was real, not a swotting of flies, not something amusing to keep the plot moving. We could say a lot more about how the two films differ. One thing would be that ‘The Traitor’ doesn’t hide the fact that Cosa Nostra had support from a certain ‘decent’ public, while Sheeran-Scorsese portray the teamsters rotten from top to bottom. I saw Bellocchio’s film one afternoon in an ordinary neighborhood cinema. Their teachers had encouraged high school students to come. The kids clapped at the end when the mafia bigwigs are shown behind bars. The state had won for a change. Here again, Scorsese’s authenticity-deficit hit me. His retired killers feel they might have made a mistake. There’s even the hint of a happy ending as this dawns on them. What are Bellocchio’s octogenarians doing as they pace their cells? Plotting vendetta and more killing. And that’s what happened and is happening.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 15, 2019 @ 9:48 am

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