Many of Sheeran’s claims have been disputed, but for their purposes Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian take him at face value – and as we see straight away, the character does paint, after his own fashion.
Even before its release, The Irishman has received much publicity and some criticism. There are two main reasons for this, neither to do with factual accuracy: the first is the use of digital effects to “de-age” the stars, who portray their characters across a story spanning roughly five decades.
This is not as distracting as it sounds, since Scorsese doesn’t push it too hard. The real Sheeran was still a young man in the 1950s, when he was brought under the wing of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) – but even at this point, De Niro has a settled, middle-aged look.
The second source of controversy is that The Irishman is technically a telemovie, financed on a generous scale by Netflix. But this has not affected Scorsese’s approach, except by giving him more freedom than he might have had otherwise.
The Irishman is pure cinema, all three and a half hours of it – and one of Scorsese’s jazziest, most difficult films, borrowing from many sources while riffling freely though often mournfully on the themes and techniques of his previous crime epics Goodfellas and Casino.
Headlines hit the camera as in a movie by Sam Fuller; a burst of gunfire is set against a flower arrangement out of Vertigo; a scene where Frank exacts revenge on a shopkeeper is staged in a fixed master shot as it might have been in 1910. Brief flashbacks or mental visions are spliced into the main narrative – which, of course, is a flashback already.
Scorsese’s sociological side, too, is much to the fore. Charts could be made tracking what various characters like to eat and drink (Hoffa is a teetotaller, but appreciates hot dogs fried in beer). Questions of etiquette are frequently debated and there are hints of a secret history of 20th-century politics, especially in relation to JFK.
By design, much of The Irishman has the inconsequence of so-called real life: pointless conversations, random coincidences, tiny moments that stick in the mind for no good reason. Frank himself is nobody special – not even a psychopath; he’s just a guy who has figured out what it takes to make headway in a violent world.
Yet the film is also a slow-burning melodrama, centred on Frank’s relationships to other men (women hardly exist for him, though he’s married with daughters). He serves both the charismatic Hoffa and the gnomelike Bufalino: he loves them both, and they love him too.
In contrast to De Niro’s restraint, Pacino gives the most Pacino of performances: the hoarse sing-song, the bellowing, the revival preacher gestures. Much of the time Hoffa seems like the central personality, the one with the tragic arc. But ultimately the story belongs to Frank: a guy not much different from the rest of us, a sinner with an outside chance at redemption.
By the end, we can see that the whole of this enormously long film has been organised around a single shocking moment, which has reverberations both before and after in the form of the violent acts Frank carries out with such diligence and expertise.
It might be that these split-second bursts of psychotic energy are where Frank, like so many Scorsese heroes, truly comes alive. Everything else is just existence – for whatever that is or isn’t worth.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.