Take Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), as a World War II veteran and a member of the Greatest Generation, he’s the kind of man we’re supposed to celebrate. But the way Sheeran tells it, his experience wasn’t so honorable. As enemy soldiers were forced to dig trenches, he stood by and executed his orders to shoot them, watching them fall into shallow graves for quick burial. He didn’t take the moral high ground; instead, he did as he was instructed. Even if he lost any sleep at first, he quickly rationalized these actions and moved on.
Sheeran is definitely not Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), the Austrian protagonist of Terrence Malick’s new release A Hidden Life. Jägerstätter was an Austrian citizen went through Nazi basic training but couldn’t bring himself to serve. He endured communal ostracism from his farming community for his conscientious objection, and then solitary confinement before his eventual execution in 1943 at the age of 36. His wife and family stood in solidarity with him, despite not being as philosophically driven to do so.
Comparatively, Sheeran took a post-war job delivering meat for butchers and delis. When propositioned, he accepted money to let cargo disappear from his trucks from time to time. Compared to other wartime jobs, this was a petty crime. But if the situation warranted — and sometimes it would — he could turn mean in the streets. Just ask his young daughter, Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina and then Anna Paquin as an adult), who watched him beat the owner of the neighborhood deli where she worked. Though swift and casual for him, it leaves a lasting impression on her.
There’s nothing stylized about Sheeran’s journey. He’s a man following orders and painting houses — as the film explains his efforts as a hitman — with workmanlike focus. As an Irishman caught up in the Mafia world, De Niro’s Sheeran doesn’t fit in. It could be argued that he’s equally ill suited for these narrative times as well. He’s an unrepentant killer, a loyal foot soldier who lived and died by a code that would never offer him a hint of redemption.
The closest he comes to being a real hero is in his relationships with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Here, we see Sheeran’s loyalty and sense of honor. In truth, what becomes clear is that these two men have the it-factor that compels men like Sheeran to follow them. Pesci’s godfather is a quiet man, eager to be liked — although Sheeran’s daughter sees through him, much like she does with her father. He’s decisive but indirect in the way that any good Mafia leader should be to keep himself out of the limelight.
Hoffa, though, is the real character, drawn in broad yet familiar strokes. He is the general who wears the crown with pride and embraces the responsibilities that come with it.
As a director, it seems in this case, Scorsese sides more with Bufalino. Scorsese does not draw attention to himself. Instead, he lets his actors do what they need to and captures the effort. The Irishman marks Scorsese’s ninth feature collaboration with De Niro and his fourth with Pesci, so he knows they’re pros. They paint his scenes just right, even when there’s more going on below the surface.
And there’s so much at play in The Irishman.
De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are de-aged, which allows them to play much younger versions of their characters over the course of decades, but there’s never a sense of overplaying the effects. The Irishman is more of an accounting of the past, for both the director and Sheeran, which allows each to look back without the heady pomp of youth. Such wisdom calls for a more clear-eyed approach.
We live for a return to righteousness or, at the very least, some semblance of innocence. Either that or we happily cast people out. In the way Scorsese handles Sheeran’s story, he would likely be satisfied with this fate. It seems the same applies to the director. He’s living by his own filmmaking code with honor and devotion to his craft. (In theaters for a limited time; streaming on Netflix Nov. 27.) (R) Grade: A