'The Irishman' Blends Truth and Lies to Tell the Story of Jimmy Hoffa's Death
This post contains spoilers for The Irishman and discusses specific plot points in detail.
In addition to portraying Jimmy Hoffa as a lover of ice cream and a stickler for punctuality, Martin Scorsese's historical epic The Irishman paints the controversial labor leader as a man undone by hubris. As played by Al Pacino, roaring in full "hoo-ah" mode for much of the film's 209-minute runtime, the one-time Teamsters boss repeatedly tempts fate as the threats against his life grow more urgent and the odds of his survival dwindle. Blinded by pride, Hoffa believes no one would dare touch him. Then he gets two bullets behind the ear courtesy of his long-time friend Frank Sheeran, the gruff mob enforcer played by a digitally de-aged Robert De Niro.
It's a violent act that's filmed with a startling lack of flash: Hoffa walks up the steps to a house, opens the door, scans the empty premises with a couple quick glances, turns to leave, and falls dead to the floor. After committing the crime, Sheeran looks towards the kitchen, pulls Hoffa's body away from the door, plants a gun on him, straightens his shirt, and hurries out the door. One of the most mythologized, theorized, and obsessed over unsolved murders of the 20th century is staged in about 30 seconds. No big speeches; no slow motion. Just a cold betrayal carried out in broad daylight. But did it really go down like that? What about Hoffa's body getting buried in the Giants stadium? Or dumped in a Florida swamp?
The story of The Irishman, which Robert De Niro has been circling for over a decade, was adapted from the nonfiction bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses by attorney-turned-writer Charles Brandt, who published the confessional tale a mere six months after the real-life Sheeran's death in 2003. (Scorsese appears to prefer the more declarative title, flashing it across the screen twice in the film.) On the book's cover, Brandt promises to reveal the truth about "The Biggest Hit in Mob History," and the bodies pile up across the book's 400 pages, including the New York slaying of gangster "Crazy" Joe Gallo, another killing dramatized in the film. As anyone who streamed The Irishman over Thanksgiving or caught it in theaters last month can attest, Sheeran lived a wild, Forrest Gump-like life perfectly suited for the star-studded Hollywood treatment.
It's also a life story that might be largely invented. In a wide-ranging piece for Slate this fall, titled "The Lies of the Irishman," journalist Bill Tonelli asked an array of experts to weigh in on the accuracy of Sheeran's many claims. The results were mostly damning, with many writers, lawyers, and law enforcement agents dismissing Sheeran as a largely self-aggrandizing criminal who was certainly connected to Hoffa but did not, ultimately, pull the trigger. "I know Sheeran didn't kill Hoffa," says former New York Times investigative reporter and Mob Lawyer author Selwyn Raab at one point in the piece. "I'm as confident about that as you can be. There are 14 people who claim to have killed Hoffa. There's an inexhaustible supply of them." (In a lengthy letter sent to Slate following the article's publication, the publisher of I Heard You Paint Houses called Tonelli's piece "a hit job" and a "a glib, intellectually dishonest taunt.")
That's not the only article that has recently called into question the events depicted in the book and Scorsese's film. In a piece that declares The Irishman "A Big Lie" for the Daily Beast, Vince Wade, a crime reporter for the ABC affiliate in Detroit at the time of Hoffa's death, details why he believes "the Sheeran book shows a lack of due diligence." He also describes how investigative reporter and The Hoffa Wars author Dan Moldea lectured De Niro about the book's alleged inaccuracies at a Washington D.C. dinner in 2014, an anecdote also included in Tonelli's Slate article. According to Moldea, he repeatedly warned the Oscar-winning actor, "Bob, you're being conned."
The same dinner party story appears in Vanity Fair'saccount of the book's accuracy and the swirling debates about Sheeran's role in Hoffa's death. In the article, Harvard Law School professor and In Hoffa's Shadow author Jack L. Goldsmith makes one of the more strongly worded condemnations of Sheeran's story: "There's absolutely no basis for Sheeran's claim and a lot of reasons to think it's preposterous." Like Moldea, Goldsmith believes the filmmakers should have cared more about the facts. (There's a less definitive version of the events already out there: 1992's Hoffa, which stared Jack Nicholson as the title character, showed Hoffa getting murdered in a parking lot by an unnamed hitman.)
The debate around the relative veracity of The Irishman will likely continue to heat up as the Oscar campaign season grinds on and the competition grows more cutthroat. Just last year, movies like BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book all faced criticism for the ways they embellished certain aspects and elided other elements of the true stories they were based on. Often the more acclaim and attention a movie receives, the more scrutiny it faces. But The Irishman has one quality that more fastidious ripped-from-the-headlines dramas lack: The unbelievability of Frank's stories, the possibility that they could be the fading memories of a frightened old man consumed with guilt, is baked into the flashback-heavy structure of the movie itself.
This is reflected in Scorsese's response to a question about the film's accuracy in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. "I don't really care about that," the director said when asked about if it was important that the events transpired as shown. "What would happen if we knew exactly how the JFK assassination was worked out? What does it do? It gives us a couple of good articles, a couple of movies and people talking about at dinner parties. The point is, it's not about the facts."
Though Scorsese and the film's screenwriter Steven Zaillian doesn't outright declare Frank to be a tough-talking bullshitter, the movie should be considered as a work in conversation with both Wolf of Wall Street, the director's outlandish examination of the fraud-filled financial industry, and Rolling Thunder Revue, his myth-making documentary about Bob Dylan's 1975 and 1976 tour. These are movies that intentionally and provocatively poke at the concept of truth. They embrace fakery. By presenting Jimmy Hoffa's death in this stark manner and putting a figure like Sheeran at the center of the story, Scorsese crafts a haunting counter-narrative to the historical record. The sense of mystery, the feeling that the film might be pulling one over on you, only adds to its power.