The Regret in The American Dream

My first article for The Pangean was on how Martin Scorsese felt about the ‘American Dream’ and expressed the same through the medium of his movies. In 2019, he took another attempt at revising that same theme with The Irishman. It feels like a full-circle moment when I was asked to write on it because the first thing that I thought of when I watched this 3-hour epic was that this was Scorsese looking back introspectively on his own career.

Right off the bat, I want to note that* The Irishman* has very little similarity to Goodfellas, or The Wolf of Wall Street, or Mean Streets, apart from style. The first shot of the movie shows a heavily made-up Robert De Niro, playing an old, wheelchair-ridden Frank Sheeran, narrating his story in flashback-style. If I had known better, this was indication enough that The Irishman is not going to be the type of borderline glorification that Martin Scorsese has been accused of throughout his career. His movies generally start with the energy of youth - Jordan Belfort’s infectious but immature energy to be a bull, Henry Hill with an iconic line about how he always wanted to be a gangster or even the excitement of running casinos mixed with all the sins you can think of in Casino.

The Irishman progresses with showing how Frank Sheeran, an American of Irish descent, started off as a meat truck driver after leaving army service, a possibly traumatic experience where he may have killed unarmed Germans who were willing to surrender, just as a revenge statement. He shows no qualms in joining the Bufalino crime family and doing questionable things for money and, hence, a more stable family life. He would do as he was told, no questions asked. Loyalty took first place above all other ambitions. The violence in the movie was subtle, there was nothing flashy about the editing of the movie in terms of it making the movie more frenetic, and everyone who was killed in the movie was just done off without a lot of hullabaloos, unlike Scorsese’s other films. Mind you,* The Irishman* has lots of killings. The difference was that most of them were hardly shown visually, but merely explained. In stark contrast, Goodfellas has an entire montage showing how wiseguys Tommy, Jimmy and Henry eliminated people that could have troubled them. In The Irishman, every person who died before Sheeran was accompanied by a text infographic showing their name, date of death and cause of death.

It speaks volumes about what Scorsese wants to achieve through the movie. Is it to make the mob life more interesting, and show what attracts people to that side of life? If that was the case, there would really be nothing separating The Irishman from Goodfellas, or Casino, or Mean Streets, or The Wolf of Wall Street. Rather, The Irishman has more in common with Raging Bull than any of his other films. Raging Bull starts very similarly - after a celebrated, but incredibly rough boxing career marred by relationship issues, anger, abuse, a prison sentence, and a run with the Mafia, Jake LaMotta becomes a stand-up comedian. He looks at himself in the mirror, and monologues about the point of his life. He’s become much fatter compared to his boxer days and looks withered out. Scorsese may often be accused of having extremely stock female characters that aren’t well fleshed out. However, to his credit, he doesn’t spare anything in ripping the character of his male leads to shreds, to the extent that they may be unlikeable. At the same time, the world that they live in draws you, and you can’t resist.

The Irishman is not that world. The second hour of the movie focuses on Sheeran’s relationship with Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters Union of workers, and thereby a hugely-respected man. All of the problematic things Hoffa does is for the betterment of his workers. Otherwise, he has a joyful code of conduct in life. He loves his family and turns out to be a better father figure to Sheeran’s younger daughter, Peggy, than Sheeran himself. This hour of the movie is extremely wholesome - Sheeran discovers that you can form personal, endearing relationships with the people you work for. For him, that person was Hoffa. This friendship sounds hardly like any of the partnerships that were present in Scorsese’s filmography. They were based on a code of brotherhood: friendly enough that neither would screw the other over, but professional enough that each knows his boundaries. Sheeran helped Hoffa build his American Dream, where the workers feel empowered and have maximum bargaining power. It wouldn’t take Hoffa one day to shut down operations across the country.

Hoffa was jailed for jury tampering in 1963 by the Kennedy administration. According to the movie, he wanted to come back to power in the Union. His replacement, Frank Fitzsimmons, was handing out interest-free loans to the Bufalino family. Hoffa was barred by Nixon from interacting with any labour organisation in any capacity. He also had a prison spat with Anthony Provenzano, former vice-president of the Union and New Jersey mob leader. The Mafia was wary of Hoffa’s rise to power, which may have disrupted their arrangements with the Union. Soon enough, Russell Bufalino called for his head, and ordered Frank Sheeran to do it, at least, according to the movie’s stance: nobody can actually confirm who was involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. The book written by Charles Brandt is vocal about Sheeran’s direct involvement, and hence, the movie as well.

The next 30 minutes are spent in patience, waiting up to the moment where Sheeran shoots Hoffa. The 30 minutes after are spent in Sheeran trying to process the emotion of regret, but possibly failing, or being unable to move on. He goes to confession, brags about Jimmy Hoffa to his hospice care with pride as if he were a rockstar in his time, all the while trying to grapple with what he had truly done.

One look at a summary of the movie tells you that it plays about the classic elements of a standard mob movie very subtly. The idea that you could bend your moral code just a little each day so that you could achieve your ideal of the American Dream, got tested with each questionable act, or each emotion that Sheeran was unable to process. The code of loyalty, brotherhood and business, that so tightly binds mobs in gangster movies was broken down in the most emotional way possible. What Scorsese may have done before is show downfall in terms of a sentence served, a physical manifestation of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Nobody was shown to be eaten from the insides, unlike Frank Sheeran here. It wasn’t the prison sentence he served later that was his penance; it was the fact that he had to live with being unable to truly feel for Hoffa, despite wanting to so badly because he loved him. One may argue that the American Dream doesn’t care about how you feel: in a race to consume everything by growing to be the best version of yourself financially, you forget about your mental health.

Moreover, mob movies are tied by familial bonds, which become another foundation for the American Dream as defined by the mafioso, or the genre of movies. Your actions are justified to a fair extent as long as you’re extending the benefits to your family and giving them a happy life. Goodfellas indulged in that idea for the longest time. In The Irishman, it hardly mattered. Peggy, Sheeran’s youngest daughter, never looked at him as a father. For all the money and stature that he may have earned, he could never gain the trust of someone who arguably mattered more. What is worse was that Sheeran never truly found out why his daughter was so quiet around him. He never figured out it was a resentment of the violence he perpetrated or the fact that his name was in the papers for all the wrong reasons. He didn’t spend too much time with her either. His being around for her was restricted to financial concern and physical protection, or so says the movie. And The Irishman then elaborates on why that in itself is so preposterous.

Much like the movie, rather fittingly, this piece feels like an extended epilogue to the first article I wrote for The Pangean. I had no idea The Irishman would be this entire flip from what old man Marty had done before. I remember laughing so much when I first saw Goodfellas. *I rewatch *The Departed *every time I’m free, *Hugo was nice too and The Wolf of Wall Street is also a riot with every viewing. Taxi Driver is jarring and Raging Bull is wondrous.

Then who’s cutting these onions? The Irishman is easily one of the best movies of last year (second-best in this author’s humble opinion) because it does exactly what no one expected: get you teary-eyed for the life of nonagenarian Irish mobster, based on a story that, while unconfirmed, is most likely true, and was heralded by a boomer that has changed the face of cinema as we have known it.


Pranav Manie

I'm an economics undergrad at Hansraj College. Love talking about all kinds of pop culture, love to know about what's happening in the world.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.