This fall, I’ve suffered through some of the worst Hollywood films I’ve seen in eighteen years of film reviewing. Each year I get a bunch of DVDs or Vimeo links from Hollywood studios to influence the ballot I cast for the NY Film Critics Online (NYFCO) awards meeting in early December. This year I began to lose sleep worrying over whether I would be able to nominate any English-language films for best of 2019. Emulating the upscale Academy Awards ceremony, NYFCO has a separate category for foreign language films—an artificial distinction. Theoretically, NYFCO can choose a foreign-language film for best film of the year, but it never happens. The only thing that seems foreign to me is a Noah Baumbach movie.
Two days ago, I received a DVD for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that lets me off the hook. I will be nominating it for best film of 2019, with it even edging out some of the foreign language films I prefer. (The overhyped Korean film “Parasite” does not make the grade.) The title refers to Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American Teamster official with mob connections who confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Rounding out the major roles is Joe Pesci, who retired from acting in 1999. Scorsese and De Niro persuaded him to play Russ Bufalino, the mob boss whose brother Bill was the lead attorney for the Teamster’s union. These characters and just about every other featured in the film were historical figures. As is generally the case with Scorsese’s flicks about real people such as Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, et al., you’ll find few major fictional characters.
In addition to the DVD, I also received a hefty coffee-table book promoting the film. I usually toss such books into the recycling bin in my high-rise—an attempt to make up for the waste of two or three trees. Why would Hollywood think that such a book would influence my nomination for best film? Probably for the same reason they make such junk. Fortunately, I took the time to browse through Tom Shones’s “The Making of The Irishman” because there was background information that allowed me to get inside Scorsese’s head. At the age of seventy-five, it is possible that “The Irishman” is Scorsese’s swan song.
It turns out that it was Robert De Niro who got the idea for the film after he read Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. (Painting houses was a euphemism for the blood splattered against the wall from mob hits.) This 2004 book grew out of interviews that Brandt, an ex-cop, conducted with Sheeran, who died a year earlier at the age of 83. Newer editions of the book contain Sheeran’s confession that he killed Jimmy Hoffa, his long-time best friend for whom he provided vital support in Teamster power struggles. The mafia bosses who had grown weary of Hoffa gave him an ultimatum. Either he killed Hoffa or die for saying no. Hoffa had stubbornly refused to bend to gangland will. The mob saw the Teamsters union as a cash cow, but Hoffa still viewed it as an instrument of working-class power, even if his power was supreme. With the mafia dons demanding that he kiss their hand, all Hoffa gave them was the back of his own.
There are many echoes in “The Irishman” of the gangster films that Scorsese made between 1973 and 1995. In the 1973 “Mean Streets”, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is caught between the mafia bosses and his best friend, the out-of-control Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). The bosses are always taking Charlie aside to urge him to rein Johnny Boy in. We find the same divided loyalties in “The Irishman”. Russ Bufalino is one of the most powerful bosses in the Northeast mafia who took Sheeran under his wing when he was a truckdriver and petty thief (he heisted sides of beef from his van and sold them to a gangster who owned a steakhouse.)
Bufalino also introduced him to Hoffa, assuring the Teamster boss that Sheeran could be counted on for both his loyalty and killer instinct. When Sheeran was in the army during WWII, he served 441 days of combat duty in Europe, an unheard-of length. Sheeran went to work for Hoffa as a part-time bodyguard while serving as the president of a Teamster local. He also relied on Bufalino for jobs as a contract killer. In 1972, he gunned down “Crazy Joey” Gallo in Umberto’s Clam House in Brooklyn after Gallo had become a thorn in the side of other bosses. His bravado, like Johnny Boy’s and Jimmy Hoffa’s, was intolerable.
Sheeran, like Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”, was not Italian. The mafia tends to recruit new members on a clan basis because this is supposed to be a firewall against undercover cops. But when the man has exceptional talents, the mafia becomes an equal-opportunity employer. With a name like Hoffa, you’d think that the teamster boss was Italian, but his last name was Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. He relied on the mafia to fill union posts for a couple of reasons. Unlike the Trotskyists who dominated the union at one time, they were okay with business unionism, especially since they were only in it for the money. It also helped that they were capable of the kind of violence that knocked the bosses back on their heels. In one scene, we see Sheeran leading a team that blows up taxi cabs owned by a company that got on the Teamsters’ wrong side.
Scorsese was likely drawn to the story of Bufalino, Hoffa and Sheeran because they were all old men just like the actors who played them and the director himself. In Tom Shone’s book, Scorsese said he had something like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur” in mind. This nouvelle vague film was about an aging ex-bank robber who had one last shot at a big score. For Scorsese to feature three septuagenarians in lead roles was something of a risk. Still, with many people having fond memories of his vintage mobster movies, you can expect brisk ticket sales. (“The Irishman” began streaming on Netflix yesterday.)
What makes it even more unconventional was Scorsese’s and screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s decision to set the final fifteen minutes or so in a nursing home where Sheeran lives in total isolation. His daughters have abandoned him. All his mob and teamster pals have died. His time is spent meditating on his wicked past (expressed through voiceovers) and contending with the ravages of old age. We see him trying to keep track of the pills he needs to stay alive and using a wheelchair to get around. We are unaccustomed to seeing such a frail Robert De Niro, a performance all the more deserving of best actor award. In one gripping scene, the wheelchair-bound geriatric patient is shopping for a coffin. Keeping with his younger taste for the good life, he decides to buy the most expensive and snazziest one. If you are about to kick the bucket, you might as well go out in style. Tom Shone quotes Scorsese’s observation that the film is “death-haunted”.
It certainly is death-haunted, but it is also haunted by memories of America at its post-war pinnacle. Every car driven in the film is an oversized Ford, GM or Chrysler gas-guzzler, fins and all. In the 1950s and 60s, those cars epitomized the American dream. Teamster officials saw themselves as integral to the circulation of commodities that made the USA “number one”. It is this period that Donald Trump is talking about when he refers to making American great again.
As Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino makes speeches to his followers about how they’ve never had it so good. In many ways, he was right. Those over-the-road truck drivers were like the AFL-CIO steelworkers and auto workers. They had money to burn and expected the good life to go on forever. The film details the sordid connections between the Teamsters and the national security state. In one scene, Sheeran drives a truck filled with weapons destined for Cuban gusanos preparing for the Bay of Pigs invasion. He meets Howard Hunt in Florida, who is coordinating the attack. Putting the Cuban revolution down went hand in hand with apple pie, Chevrolets and the American flag.
The film also dramatizes the clash between Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy that led to Hoffa’s jailing in 1964 for the attempted bribery of a juror. After his release, he goes on a campaign to regain control of the union and rid it of mafia influence. Or at least bring it within manageable levels. Under his replacement Frank Fitzsimmons who replaced him, the mafia grew more powerful than ever. The Teamster pension funds were an open faucet that poured millions into mob-connected Las Vegas hotels. Ultimately mob muscle overpowered Hoffa by making his underling Sheeran an offer he couldn’t refuse: take down his best friend or die.
There was one minor detail in the film that caught my eye. The critics likely missed it unless they had spent time in the Trotskyist movement like me. I speak of how Jimmy Hoffa hated people coming late to meetings, so much so that it led to a fistfight with his rival Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). He was a made man and Teamsters official with ties to the mob even stronger than Sheeran’s. Provenzano not only came to a meeting in beach clothes (Hoffa expected him to show up in a suit) but fifteen minutes late.
I couldn’t help but wonder if it had something to do with Jimmy Hoffa learning how to be a Teamster union organizer from Farrell Dobbs, a leader of the Trotskyist movement. He might have been a disciplinarian when it came to lateness, learning from Leon Trotsky who locked the conference room door in Coyoacán the minute a meeting was supposed to begin. Late-comers had to knock on the door, only to be met with Trotsky’s icy glare as they entered.
In 2006, I received a review copy of Stephen Fleischman’s “A Red in the House”. Fleischman went to work for CBS in the 1950s when he was in the CPUSA. It was evident from the book that Fleischmann was to the left of the CP and, as such, an outlier working for network TV. Among the shows he produced was one profiling Jimmy Hoffa for ABC News Closeup in 1974 that featured an interview about his relationship to Dobbs. His recollections of the meeting appear in the book:
I was straight with Hoffa from the start. He needed some positive press. It was a simple deal.
“I give you one hour of network prime time—you give me total access.” He jumped at the deal.
Av Westin conceded the story had merit, but not before I got a little help from my friend, Elmer Lower, who was still President of ABC News. When I broached the subject with Elmer, I could see a twinkle come into his eye. The name “Hoffa” still had star power and Elmer seemed to be a little star struck.
“Do you think you can bring him up to New York for lunch, one day?” Elmer asked.
The next week I had Hoffa at Elmer’s reserved table at Alfredo’s Restaurant on 59th Street. It was a very cordial lunch and Jimmy had Elmer spun before the appetizer was finished. There was no trouble getting budget approval for the show after that.
Hoffa invited me to hang out with him “up at the lake”, his country place about an hour north of Detroit. That’s when he became “my friend Jimmy.” I met his wife, Josephine, a shy housewife who always stayed in the shadows—his son, James P., a young attorney, just starting a labor law practice in Detroit. (Ironically, he stepped into his father’s shoes when he defeated Ron Carey and the Teamster’s reform Movement in the bitterly fought election for General President in the year 2000).
Up at the lake, I also met Hoffa’s foster son, Chuckie O’Brien taken into the family when he was young. He acted as Hoffa’s factotum and seemed to be closer to Jimmy than his own son.
I booked Correspondent Jim Kincaid and my film crew and brought them up to “the lake.” For the next week, we did a running on-camera, in-depth interview with Hoffa covering his life, upside down and backwards. He made his fight to regain the Teamster Presidency a personal matter. He said:
The reason I want to get back into the labor movement—even though I can retire, be in Florida in the winter, up here at the lake in summer—is very simple. I’ve been in it all my life. It’s my life the way I lived it, the way I want to live it…
In 1974, Detroit was one of the most highly unionized cities in America. Forty years before that, workers died on its streets trying to organize unions.
A union organizer since he was a teenager, Hoffa grew up with the labor movement in this country. His ideas and tactics were formed in the crucible of violence that was labor’s early history. In 1931, at the age of 18, Hoffa organized the loading dock at the Kroger Company’s Detroit warehouse.
Hoffa learned early that trade unions in America were forced to fight for survival with bargaining, boycotts and blood. Most of the time, union violence was provoked by industry and government’s use of force, exemplified in 1937 when Chicago police killed ten striking steel workers in a bloody, historic battle—the Memorial Day Massacre.
Early union organizers risked not only their jobs, but also their lives.
Hoffa recalled it this way:
Nobody can describe the sit-down strikes, the riots, and the fights that took place in the State of Michigan particularly here in Detroit, unless they were part of it.
And if they found out that you…even passed out literature or talked union, you were subject to getting your skull broke…
Like all major unions, the Teamsters were no strangers to violence. In 1934, Teamster Local 544 in Minneapolis went on strike. A look at early Teamster history provides a better understanding of how Hoffa’s ideas on the labor struggle were formed. He recalled:
In 1934, they had nothing to lose except the fact they may lose their life and that wasn ‘t worth much at that time because they couldn’t do nothing with their life….
And when you listen to a man like Vince or Ray Dunne talk or Farrell Dobbs talk…
Farrell Dobbs and the Dunne Brothers had been Trotskyites in Minneapolis in the thirties and organizers of Local 544 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
By mentioning Farrell Dobbs, Hoffa opened the door to a deeper probe of his character, permitting him to be more fully judged as a labor leader.
In 1934, Farrell Dobbs led the Minneapolis Teamster strike that resulted in a hostile 10-day armed conflict with police and 3000 National Guard troops.
We wanted to hear Farrell Dobbs talk, as Hoffa suggested…and we did. We tracked Dobbs down, living in retirement, outside Berkeley, California. He was a tall, gaunt man in his seventies, somewhat haggard. A lifetime in the labor struggle must have taken its toll. But his eyes lit up when he talked about the Minneapolis strike of 1934:
We came to battle… the battle focused in the market district in Minneapolis, the wholesale produce market district in Minneapolis. And we fought it out there, club to club…and the result was that we were able to fight the cops to a draw and they had to negotiate a settlement with us.
One of the outstanding things is not only the courage but the resourcefulness that a body of workers show when they’re in a mood to fight and they have leaders that are willing to lead them into a fight.
A look at this history provides a clue to understanding how Hoffa’s ideas on the labor struggle were formed. Hoffa says of Dobbs:
Farrell kept preaching the fact that nobody could, in the future, nobody would be able to win in their own town or their own state, but had to have expanded coverage for the entire transportation, warehousing and food industry. I realized how right he was and it had an impact on my mind as to the fact that the union could no longer survive, no matter how well organized, in a particular city or state… without wider coverage.
Farrell Dobbs explained to us what he did:
In the Midwest, we concentrated on a uniform contract for the whole eleven-state area where we had organized the workers. Hoffa was definitely a member of the leadership team.
By the end of the 1930s, Dobbs had made the Midwest a Teamster stronghold. Dobbs was responsible for the concept of area-wide bargaining—the idea of getting regional and then national contracts. Years later, Hoffa used Dobbs’ ideas in developing the National Master Freight Agreement.
His relationship with Farrell Dobbs was an important chapter in Hoffa’s life. Dobbs and the Dunne brothers’ political affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party in Minnesota exerted a strong influence on the young Jimmy Hoffa. But Hoffa’s friendship with Dobbs reached a turning point in 1941 with the entry of the United States into World War II. The Socialist Workers Party was against the war. Dobbs and the Dunne brothers organized Teamster opposition to the US entry.
At that time, Dan Tobin was the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt did not want Socialists in powerful labor positions during wartime, and he asked his friend Tobin to do something about it.
With war beginning in Europe, Tobin ordered Hoffa to have the International take over Minneapolis Local 544 and get rid of Dobbs and the Dunne brothers.
Although Hoffa’s idealism toward the working-class struggle made him respect Dobbs, Hoffa’s pragmatism in his fight for power led to his betrayal of Dobbs. Viewed today, this can be interpreted as a turning point in Hoffa’s career. Hoffa rationalized his actions this way:
I think that he [Tobin] used our relationship with me because I had refused to go on a request, or on an order. When he ordered me to go to Minneapolis, I said I wouldn’t go and it was none of my business. And then he put it on a personal basis, as a request, and brought up what he had done for me and so forth—and what he was gonna do for me. And once the old man made a request, at his age, you couldn’t very well turn him down. Recognizing he was the General President, I went there… went to Minneapolis, took over the office, brought in a hundred crack guys, had the war. We won every battle. And we finally took the union over and then Farrell left and went with the Socialist Party.
Farrell Dobbs recalled it differently:
Now it is true that Hoffa was among the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) goon squads that Tobin sent into Minneapolis against Local 544 in 1941. That’s actually true. But Hoffa says, he says that he whipped us. Now, it’s a little more complicated than that. Hoffa got just a little help, if he thinks he whipped us. For instance, he was helped by the Minneapolis Police Department, the courts of the city, the county, and the state… the Mayor, the Governor and an anti-labor Law that had been rigged and put through by the Republican Governor of the State—and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Department of Justice and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who then happened to be President of the United States…
Under those circumstances, you got to admit Hoffa had just a little help, didn’t he? The man exaggerates on this point. He exaggerates Hoffa’s fast and determined rise to power began—many think—with the betrayal of Farrell Dobbs and the takeover of the rebellious Minneapolis local.
The full excerpt from “A Red in the House” is here.