Think Movies: The Irishman

Think Movies: The Irishman

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 13, December, 2019

I WOULD LIKE to submit a proposal to whatever regular readers that I might be lucky enough to have accrued; it concerns greatness and how it can be identified. I put it to you that simply being ‘great’, in so far as it as a term as joined phrases like ‘awesome’ or ‘epic’, at something, whether that be painting, sex, association football, or designing buildings isn’t really enough to be truly ‘great’ at whatever pastime or vocation that may be. No; it requires something more than that.

When someone is properly great at something then they also need to be able to identify when something with aspirations to be that thing is, in fact, not great at all, or simply a spirited attempt at it. Essentially, as with Mohammad Ali in boxing, you need to not only know how to do what you do better than almost everyone else but also be able to sniff out the also-rans and tell them why they’re not you.

With this being, hopefully, adumbrated as clearly as I can, that Martin Scorsese is our greatest living filmmaker because of the recent controversy around him and what can be seen as his statement in response of, ‘no, you do it this way’ – The Irishman.

Scorsese attracted no small amount of ire from across the pop culture for commenting that the Marvel movies (of which, if you’ve not heard, then welcome to 2019 time traveller and, let me be the first to tell you, that film critics are widely considered to be the brightest and sexiest people of our time) “aren’t cinema”.

You’re right to gasp dear reader! How dare the 77-year-old American tell the millions of people who have crowded into their local cinemas (the clue being in the name, surely?) that what the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers Assemble aren’t cinema? How snobbish! How elitist! How out of touch! Right?

Well… I’m afraid, as should come as a surprise to nobody, that the man who made Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Taxi Driver is absolutely right when in what he said; the Marvel movies, and other such movies, are exactly that, they’re ‘movies’ but not cinema. You can find Scorsese’s full argument in this opinion piece in The New York Times but the essence of it is that cinema is challenging art and the reliable, comfortable, production-line, sprawling and entirely predictable franchise way of making films is not.

Note that saying that the franchise style of filmmaking is “not cinema” is not the same as saying they’re not enjoyable, exciting, fun, engaging, popular, or any other such compliment that, in my view, the best of the Marvel cinematic universe fully deserves. While it is entirely clear that Scorsese is not a fan of Captain America et al, that is secondary to his argument and, given that this is a review of The Irishman, not really of importance.

Scorsese’s argument about production line movies like the Marvel Universe is pretty airtight, even if we exclude the argument from authority that comes with the great director commenting on the thing he does for a living. The Marvel universe, and this bears repeating, is fun but its innovation comes from its episodic style and huge branching behemoth of a universe rather than anything to do with cinematography, director, artistic style, or anything else. They are safe and reliable; that’s partly why audiences flock to them, but they are diametrically opposed to anything that can be called cinema. This is not a slur, it’s just a fact.

With his ability to critically identify the pretenders to his beloved medium being beyond the doubt of only the most avid Marvel fanboys, it would be a tragic shame if Scorsese’s contemporary, ‘and that’s how you do it, laddie’, didn’t quite live up to his claim and his critics were able to point out that his latest effort, which released in both theatres and on Netflix, was ‘not cinema’, or at least ‘not very good cinema’, wouldn’t it?

Well, Merry Christmas everybody because The Irishman is… it’s just fucking great!

The Irishman, the story of a mafia hitman and his involvement in the disappearance of American union leader Jimmy Hoffa, is what happens when each and every bit of a film is polished to a glossy gleam and comes together with the consummate insight and skill of a master director. It’s stunningly beautiful, packed with clever and well-executed muted style choices. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is terse, suspenseful, subtle, and full of that slick, cool, and nerve-jangling edginess that a Scorsese epic requires. The soundtrack is stunningly curated, the editing is top notch, and the source material, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, has been reduced and amplified like a chef preparing a delicious sauce. Hell, even the ageing/de-aging effects, my primary concern going in, work! It’s stunning!

On the performance side, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a gangster movie with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel all being directed, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned already, by Martin Scorsese. (Very funny, Ed.)  In our troubled times, there’s almost something reassuring to know that these men still have the chemistry they’ve built up over the years and when they come together on a screen there’s still magic to be seen. However, as good as the holy quadrumvirate of wiseguys is here, it’s the little additions to the expansive cast that really make it all come together. Ray Romano as mobster lawyer Bill Bufalino, Jack Hudson as Robert Kennedy, and Bobby Cannavale as the wonderfully named Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ Ditullio are all brilliant in their smaller, more compact, roles but at no point feel like flat or one-note characters.

The Irishman, as I hope I’ve made clear, is a wonderful movie and a conclusive Scorsese answer to, ‘well, what is cinema then?’ and that you should all see it. In my view, however, what makes it even more valuable is treating it as a proposal for how real cinema works in the modern age. In the same way as video games developed and improved when they moved from cartridges (sorry N64 owners in my peer group, they were rubbish and neither Mario Kart nor Goldeneye have held up) The Irishman shows what can be done with in the streaming age. It’s a very long and highly complex story that benefits from being able to be paused, considered, and started again which is how I recommend you watch it. Treat this delicious cinematic feed as a meal and enjoy it in courses.

Go see or go stream.

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