‘The Irishman’: Martin Scorsese’s personal and cultural reflection piece

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Photo courtesy of: Ypehmish/ Wikimedia Commons

‘The Irishman’ film chronicles the story of Frank Sheeran (DeNiro) and how he was hired by mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) as a hitman to take out enemies of the mob.

Gangsters began to run the streets again in the 70s. Not in terms of crime or drugs on the streets, but the lines and lines of people waiting to go into the cinemas for movies that told stories of crime and the Mafia and underground syndicates run by incredibly powerful people. 

The impact of these films broke society, and not even just in terms of story. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather rose to become the highest grossing movie at the time, earning nominations for 11 Academy Awards, and taking home three.

Many young filmmakers had their first big breaks in the 70s, from Steven Spielberg and Jaws to George Lucas and Star Wars. These movies were crowd pleasers that both would overtake The Godfather for highest grossing film and would go on to not spark controversy . These films would soon spark sequels and thousands of pop culture references that bash the original film instead of pay homage to it. They are great movies, but they definitely are absent of message or theme that the audience could take away.

One director’s first hit was different. Instead of catering to audiences with special effects or huge stars, this film was dark and gritty. It is a very music driven story of crime and the human brain. This film was Taxi Driver, the director was Martin Scorsese, and the audiences that did walk away from that movie knew that this was somebody to keep an eye on. 

The legacy of Taxi Driver carried Scorsese to the top of the A-list for Hollywood directors, where he has remained a veritable force in the industry for over 40 years. He has earned nine Oscar nominations for Best Director, winning once.  He has also worked with many of film’s most iconic actors of all time, including Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. 

2019 came with the release of Scorsese’s most recent project. Using unprecedented special effects technology, he would tell a story about power through a topic that he has been rooted in since the beginning, crime on the streets. 

Also bringing in the Italian mafia, Scorsese would de-age DeNiro, along with Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and take them back to their 70s heyday in a $200 million movie absent of superheroes and starships but chock-full of modern parables and throwbacks to the glory age of gangster movies, The Irishman.

Another thing Scorsese does very well is picking subject matters that have cultural relevance.”

— Owen Cummings ‘22

The film chronicles the story of Frank Sheeran (DeNiro) and how he was hired by mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) as a hitman to take out enemies of the mob. When negotiations between this mob and the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) go sour, Sheeran’s loyalty is put to the test, and it becomes a question of which of these powerful men he will side with in the end. 

The reason the 70s gangster movies were mentioned earlier was that many, if not all of them, deal with this theme of loyalty that Sheeran has to go through in The Irishman. Not only that, but a lot of Scorsese’s other films are about connections and loyalty as well. Scorsese most likely did intend to have this film be a throwback to his earlier years with the casting decisions he made, but also with certain story elements that harken back to his earlier films.

To start with, this whole loyalty theme really is important throughout many of Scorsese’s films. Scorsese grew up in Italy during the golden age of the mafia, and so this deep rooted idea of family is just something that comes naturally to him. Being able to draw upon personal experience is crucial for inspiration in filmmaking, and this personal touch to his films has allowed Scorsese to become one of the greatest directors in history.

Another thing Scorsese does very well is picking subject matters that have cultural relevance. Frank Sheeran is recalling his supposed murder of Hoffa, and many scenes in the movie revolve around a screwed up judicial system that either never gets straight answers or gets contradictory remarks, which could be translated to now with all the talk of fake news and putting people in high places on trial. 

This was also true for movies like Goodfellas, which was based on a true story and outlined a different social commentary. The crime rate in the late 80s going into the 90s was very large, and in Goodfellas, unlike other crime dramas, the ruthlessness and extremely gritty nature was embraced and focused on, reflecting society back onto itself.

Even without story elements that harken back to Scorsese’s other hits, the casting of DeNiro and Pesci (both were in Goodfellas) throws audiences back to older gangster movies, giving this film an even more epic feel to it. ”

— Owen Cummings, ‘22

Scorsese never exclusively focuses on large bodies of people, which is one of the reasons that Taxi Driver had the impact it did. Rather than focusing on a bunch of criminals, the focus is exclusively on Robert DeNiro’s character of Travis Bickle, who suffers from insomnia and dreams of making New York City a better place. One man’s brain can sometimes be more enthralling than a threat of epic proportions, which is true even today with movies like Joker and Get Out, and The Irishman is full of moments where the audience steps back from the Bufalino v. Hoffa aspect and looks at not only what these events are doing to Sheeran and what his thought process is throughout it. 

Even without story elements that harken back to Scorsese’s other hits, the casting of DeNiro and Pesci (both were in Goodfellas) throws audiences back to older gangster movies, giving this film an even more epic feel to it. 

Scorsese’s most recent crime drama was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, many legends in the field up against new actors and directors, proving that the cast and crew could still make art, and that this era of filmmaking is still relevant and enthralling today. It also was a reminder to the industry and to audiences that Martin Scorsese, now 77, has not lost his touch, and, if this does end up being his final film, it is a fitting throwback and conclusion to the golden age of gangster films he helped create.