An incredibly long yet infinitely rewarding film that has a lot of problems but a lot of rewards for anyone willing to give it a try.
The film follows Frank Sheeran played by Robert De Niro as he rises from Union truck driver to mob enforcer to old man filled with regret. He’s a classic De Niro character; taciturn, mostly silent, yet with a great deal of depth behind his eyes. And here’s the first and possibly biggest problem with the movie. De Niro is wonderful, but they replaced his naturally dark eyes with bright blue eyes. They are an unnatural fluorescent blue that deadens the impact of his stare which is possibly De Niro’s greatest asset, his hard cold stare. It is a distracting and confounding decision that seems to serve no real narrative purpose.
Along the way Frank meets and befriends Russel Buffalino played by Joe Pesci. This is Pesci unlike almost any of his previous roles. He is subdued. He is wise and patient. He isn’t the hothead he’s played to perfection dozens of times. He’s hitting notes here that he rarely has before and it’s a joy every time he’s on screen.
As Frank gets deeper in with the mob the movie reveals how deeply entwined the mob and the Unions were back in the 50’s and 60’s. The movie really dives into this history and the behind the scenes nature of the story creates a fascinating tapestry of a time in American history that is easily forgotten or overlooked.
As frank rises through the ranks of the mob he is given the important task of protecting Jimmy Hoffa played by Al Pacino. Hoffa here is a wild card. He’s a temperamental showman who plays to the crowd and alienates everyone around him. Hoffa’s story feels like Greek tragedy. His hubris and pride leads to his own downfall. He’s an incredibly sad figure who believes that he is untouchable due to his status. Even as he ostensibly signs his own death certificate he clings to his pride.
What makes his tragedy heartbreaking though is his friendship with Frank. De Niro and Pacino have been friends since the 70’ and every scene with them is infused with their 40+ years of friendship and trust. The weight of the decisions these characters make weighs on them and crushes them. This movie is about how much guilt weighs and how much that weight hangs on the soul.
The film is directed by Martin Scorsese, and while this isn’t his best film, it is his best in years. The storytelling is sharp and clean. The themes are clear and well developed. And the movie is filled with scenes that are masterclasses in scene work. That said it is way too long. There are so many great moments, but too many of them get lost in the sheer volume of moments.
One of the gimmicks of the movie is that it uses a computer effect to digitally “de-age” its stars. The effects is only really used in a few early scenes. Pesci and De Niro look like they’re in their 50’s and 60’s throughout most of the movie. Both De Niro and Pesci are 76. Shaving 20 years off these legends isn’t nothing, but they still look older than their characters are supposed to be. Even in the early scenes when De Niro is more drastically aged he still moves like a 76 year old. There’s a scene in which De Niro beats up a guy and breaks the guys hand. Because De Niro still moves slowly the beating is less brutal and more like a strange slow motion clip. All the actors have this problem. No matter what age they are portraying, their true age shines through in their body language. It is wonderful that this technology brought these amazing actors together again, it it’s effectiveness is seriously limited.
Overall, I liked the movie a lot. It’s story is rich and fascinating. It’s characters and performances are well worth the time investment. However it is a flawed film that doesn’t always stick the landing. It is my cup of tea. A-