Martin Scorsese's latest movie The Irishman just premiered at the New York Film Festival to rapturous reviews. Scorsese is back with a masterpiece! A late career summation for Scorsese and Robert de Niro! It features Al Pacino's best scenery-chewing for years! An Epic of the price of violence and murder on one man's soul!
The movie is adapted from I Heard You Paint Houses, a non-fiction book by Charles Brandt. The book's title is supposedly a euphemism for Mob slang for assassinations. It relates the confessions of Frank "the Irishman" Sheehan, an alleged mafia hitman who claimed to be the killer of Jimmy Hoffa. A new Martin Scorsese movie is always an event. His themes of gangsters and their brand of toxic masculinity (that new buzz phrase) are presented with cinematic elegance.
There is one thing though: Frank Sheehan's claim that he murdered Jimmy Hoffa might be a total lie.
The Evidence Doesn't Fit
Jack Goldsmith, a former Justice Department legal adviser, wrote an article in the New York Review of Books that thoroughly debunked Brandt's book and Sheeran's claims. He pointed out that Sheeran made many contradictory confessions and denials over the decades about his murder of Hoffa. This made Sheeran an unreliable witness. Goldsmith mentions testimony from investigators that dispute Sheeran's claims. To cap it off, Goldsmith also presents forensic evidence that disproves Hoffa was killed at the location where Sheeran said he did it.
Back in August, Bill Tonelli published an investigative report at Slate pointing out how outlandish Sheeran's confessions were as well. Tonelli cited cops and FBI investigators who all dismissed Sheeran's claims as utterly ridiculous.
The movie is sold as the story of the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa. If that's not true, does it damage the movie in our eyes?
The Gulf Between Fiction and "True Story"
So does it matter if the "true story" of a movie turns out to be a lie? Does knowing the story you're going to see is a lie affect your enjoyment? All movies are fiction after all. Maybe a totally fictitious story doesn't have the moral weight or obligation of a "true story". "True stories" carry a certain weight of moral obligation. We the audience want to believe the story. How betrayed should we feel if we find out that certain details in the movie are completely made up? "True story" movies do that all the time, for many reasons. Sometimes, it's to save time and condense characters and incidents to improve the pace of the story. Sometimes there are legal reasons for changing real-life characters' names and action.
Under Scorsese, the gangster movie is an examination of the dark side of American history, labour relations and capitalism. Frank Sheeran's story is a meditation on mortality and the costs of a lifetime of violence and murder. Does the "true story" being a lie undermine that thesis? Or are we happy to see a good story told in a good movie? Whether or not Sheeran killed Jimmy Hoffa in real life isn't actually the point. The point is that in Scorsese's movie, Sheeran's killing of Hoffa after years of close friendship is the summation of the emptiness of Sheeran's soul.
In John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the lesson was "print the legend". That's what movies do. They take it further. They sell the lie when it tells the best story.
The Irishman opens in select theatres on November 1st and will stream on Netflix on November 27th.