The Irishman Says Everything About The Current Mindset Of De Niro, Pacino And Scorsese
“Maybe. I don’t know. It could be.”
Robert De Niro sighs, mulling over the idea the he, Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino couldn’t have made a movie like The Irishman – a mob story with a conscience – earlier in their careers. He doesn’t seem to like the implication that the film’s moral stance on violence is the product of maturity – or that their older films aren’t.
It’s hard to blame De Niro for brushing this off. Morals and movies have always had a complicated relationship. How could they not when the first true blockbuster, 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, glorified the white supremacist group the Klu Klux Klan? While its release saw protests from the African American community, the next decade saw outrage of a different kind – anger from puritanical, political and religious groups across the US about violence, sexuality, and a lack of clarity over who the good or bad guys really were. It got so bad that Hollywood had to come up with a self-censorship code – the Hays Code – that governed almost every film from 1934 until 1968.
Part of the fun for filmmakers, of course, was pushing up against these boundaries – to subvert the rules and smuggle through unacceptable ideas through creative means. This was, after all, the same era that gave us film noir, a genre of multilayered characters and involving villains. The bad guys might lose, of course, but the ideas stuck with you in different ways than the Hays Code would have liked.
Many of the greatest directors fell in love with cinema during this age, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese amongst them. When the Hays Code finally fell in ’68, it was those young directors who pushed cinema into a golden age of creativity, catapulting the artform past its old boundaries into a new era of bold vision and vitality.
In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Scorsese explained what he loved about that era.
“It was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” he wrote.
It’s now been more than four decades, and the work of those filmmakers, and the performances of their most iconic stars – Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – are still being debated. Their films, from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990) starring De Niro to De Palma’s Scarface (1983) starring Pacino, immersed you into the perspective of their lead characters – often a graphically violent, remorseless place to be, full of chest-beating machismo, racism and misogyny.
For Scorsese in particular, a man so devoted to bringing the world of his characters to life, it can be hard to decipher his own opinion from that of the storyline. You feel the detachment most of all in mob movies such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino. They don’t tend to consider the right and wrong of the actions their characters take, mostly because the characters themselves – often based on real people – never did.
And while the conversation around morality in film has ebbed and flowed in the decades he has made movies, Scorsese himself never really has. In the early 1990s, when asked about his thoughts on violence in film, he seemed unencumbered by any social implications. Why were his films violent? Because the people in his stories were. Violence was there to communicate to the audience that violence occurred. Right and wrong didn’t figure in. The effect it could have on its audience didn’t matter.
It makes you wonder, then, why The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest gangster epic, starring both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and released on Netflix at the end of November is so different. At first glance of course, it’s more of the same – godfathers, executioners, Italian food and blood feuds. But from start to finish, judgment hangs around every corner, with remorse slowly simmering until it becomes unbearable.
The film tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), a hitman for the Bufalino crime family, from his first foray into the world of the mafia until his final days in an assisted care facility in the early 2000s. While Frank himself has a cool detachment from his savagery, an eye of judgment lingers on him.
Peggy, his favorite daughter, watches him closely. She knows her father is a violent man, and while he does nothing but love and care for her, her judgment of him never wavers. Until his dying days, she never gives him the love and approval that he desperately yearns for. Frank, to her, is not what a father or a man should be.
It’s not only Peggy who judges Frank. Frank is a man of faith, who seemingly believes in a morality passed down from a higher source, but like much of his adopted crime family, he also believes that the tribal duties of loyalty and honour, of duty to your friends and bosses, take precedence, the code that most mafia movies adhere to. As time passes, and the weight of his actions lays heavy, Frank himself begins to fall apart, bearing a load that becomes unbearable.
Deciphering whether Frank was born with a conscience or grew one along the way is a tall order. He narrates the story as an old man, taking stock in his choices as he goes, but it’s hard to say if these questions always lingered in his heart. Scorsese, in sticking to the vision of his characters, stayed true to Frank’s final understanding of right and wrong, try as he might to run from it.
As a viewer, you can’t help but ask if Frank is the only one who became increasingly concerned with the consequences of his actions. Perhaps Scorsese, De Niro, and Pacino have too? Is their own aging and reflection what allowed them to connect so fully with Frank’s story?
“I think character-wise, Frank was religious, and raised religiously, and had this thing, this dilemma, with people he loved,” says De Niro. “He had to choose between one or the other and what he had to do in order to survive himself. It weighed on him so much that he had to get it out. That was him.
“He was a guy with that kind of a conscience. At the same time, he says in the thing, ‘I killed someone, and I didn’t know their family’. These were his friends, and people he loved, and like any human being, he was beyond deeply remorseful. He had to do what he had to do,” concludes De Niro.
As we speak, Al Pacino sits next to him, listening intently.
“What do you think, Mr. Pacino?”
The reverence of a meeting with De Niro and Pacino feeling like it requires a lean towards the formal.
“Oh, that’s just not fair. I was listening to Bob!” he says in mock outrage.
“So, as you noticed, I don’t get very old in the film,” says Mr Pacino. “But I can talk on the subject. I think that’s insightful what you’ve said. I sort of agree with it in a way. I think this is what happens. The players in this environment and this film are doing what is close to them, and their understanding of things. I would imagine this was Marty’s expression of what he sees in the world.”
And as the interview draws to a close, De Niro, expresses a vision of his own. An introspective view of what he, himself, would like to leave behind.
“This might sound corny,” he says, “but I would like to have helped make a better world. To impart to people that you have to do the right thing. That we all have to help each other.”
And in both of those comments, the picture starts to get a little clearer. Art has always been a vehicle for artists to wrestle with the internal questions, the moralities we all have within us. But as a storyteller, there can never be full detachment, try as you might to separate heart from the art.
Read more: How Joe Pesci Stole The Irishman
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are now 76 years old. Pacino is 79. The Irishman may be the last time these artists tell a story together. That they’d unite for a film with such a reflective eye is not a coincidence.
“I don’t see us doing this 20 years ago,” says Pacino. “I just don’t. I think it’s something that could only happen to us now.”
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix