[Editor’s note: The following contains light spoilers for “The Irishman.”]
Martin Scorsese is no stranger to adapting wild true-life tales, from the raucous Wall Street misadventures in “Wolf of Wall Street” to the high-rolling drama of “Casino,” but his latest film is tasked with even tricker subject matter. The filmmaker’s latest mafia epic, “The Irishman,” is based on the decade-spanning Charles Brandt biography “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which tells the crazy story of alleged mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and the many criminal acts he committed in service to the Bufalino crime family. Sheeran’s recollections have been called into question over the years — particularly when it comes to gobsmacking confessions regarding the deaths of Jimmy Hoffa (played in the film by Al Pacino) and Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) — and many doubt the veracity of all of Sheeran’s claims to fame. (A recent article on Slate attempts to separate fact from fiction in insightful fashion).
Still, many of those stories do make their way onto the screen for Scorsese’s film, which is premiering this evening as the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival. Many, but not all, including a handful of Sheeran’s most out-there allegations about the long reach of the Mafia during his heyday in the ’60s. During a post-screening press conference, Scorsese and company (including De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci) were asked about the lack of inclusion of perhaps Sheeran’s most shocking claim: that he delivered three high-powered rifles to Dallas in the days before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the exact type used to assassinate President Kennedy. It’s a bold claim — that the mob planned it, and that Sheeran himself played a part — but the story doesn’t make its way into Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour epic, penned by screenwriter Steven Zaillian.
For Scorsese, that particular cut was necessary for a number of reasons. “The decision had to be made, very clear, before I read the book: Are we going to get into what could be considered conspiracy theories?,” Scorsese said. “What we wanted to do was [explore] the nature of who we are as human beings, the love, the betrayal, the guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness, all of this. Everything else that plays out can be considered — and I’m not denigrating Charles Brandt’s book or what Frank Sheeran may have said, because this is not Frank Sheeran in the film, this is a character that we all created — may be considered arguably to be contested. I didn’t want to muddy up the emotion and the power of what he was going through.”
And yet the muddy nature of the stories that make up “The Irishman” appealed to Scorsese in other ways, and he sees the film as being keenly on-point when it comes to political and cultural events unspooling even today. Referring to scenes in which certain other characters in the film act as if they are “above the law,” Scorsese unpacked his thinking around depicting incidents of retaliatory violence. “‘Who says so?’ ‘Higher-ups!’ ‘Who are the higher-ups?’ Next thing you know, people are missing,” he said. “Do we really have to know they are missing? And who really did what? Who shot Joe Gallo? Really? It’s the life that they’re in, it’s the life they’re in, they’re human beings.”
As for the truth to Sheeran’s stories, Scorsese himself doesn’t know. “So you want to [say you] delivered guns and this and that? It may be true, I don’t know,” Scorsese said. “But Charles Brandt, he knows all this stuff and I believe he’s working on another project that is going to get into that deeper. Certainly, it’s that old story: If it walks like a duck, and it quacks, it might be a duck. … But what happens if we know the truth of that time? Will our lives change now? What does it do to us as human beings, what does it say to us about society now, about being above the law and being reckless?”
Later, De Niro added that, for those who know the JFK story, there is a nod to it tucked inside the final film. “There was an intimation when Joe’s character [Russell Bufalino] says…”
Here, Scorsese cut in with the key line. “‘If they can knock off a president, they can knock off the president of a union.'” He added, “Now, that’s the only one I allowed in, because you can interpret that, if you want, meaning ‘they’ knocked him off, we didn’t knock him off, but people can be taken out.”
“The Irishman” will open in select theaters November 1. Netflix is giving the film an exclusive theatrical release for just over three weeks. The drama debuts on streaming November 27.