Scorsese’s Irishman: sad farewell to an era

When I finally got around to watching The Irishman, I had still been isolated from conventional and amateur critique about the film.

As a spectator, I formed the opinion pretty quickly that this was a love story. A salute to friendships between Hollywood legends who knew they might never work together again. Perhaps not even see each other again, all in the one place and time. And maybe it was also a tip of the hat to us, the audience, for making these artists into living legends, and coming back this one more time.

To put it another way, The Irishman is a gangster film the way Homer’s Odyssey is a gangster story. Or is the Odyssey a travelogue? Meaning that the Odyssey is both. And much more. Odysseus and his men were indeed roving bandits whose travels were recounted. There’s plenty of theft, murder, and gadding about the ancient world to lay it to waste. But along with it also comes a meditation on personal integrity, spirituality and the caprice of the gods (or fortune, as the case may be), on patriotism and duty as much as the lure of lust, gluttony, and narcissism.

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Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

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The most powerful effect of the film is the equivocation it caused in contemporary American reviews about the shameful subversion of that nation’s constitution presided over by HUAC between the 1930s and ‘50s. How is it possible that nearly 30 years after the last of this lynch-mob witch-hunting was finally discredited, along with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career, American journalists are still too cowardly to admit that those years represented the high point of their own Stalinist show-trials, with not a single crime by anyone in Hollywood being uncovered, and not a single prosecution being mounted that didn’t directly undermine constitutional guarantees of the right not to incriminate oneself, and the right to free speech and association.

Writer and director Irwin Winkler’s strategy of focusing on the personal tragedies that befall the protagonist, fictional director David Merrill, his family, and his friends, as if these were somehow divorced from politics, might have spared Winkler making a more overtly political statement, but robbed the film of any chance to say something powerful and engaging. That this formula didn’t work appears evident in box office takings of $9.5 million against a budget of $16 million.

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