If you’ve noticed a sharp uptick in the number of people around you saying “it is what it is” (about a dozen times this weekend at my gym alone), there’s a reason. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic The Irishman, presumably his final summation of the gangster genre he’s perfected over four decades of filmmaking, made its debut on Netflix over the weekend. It’s been hailed as a masterpiece, with career pinnacle performances from DeNiro, Pacino, and (especially) Pesci, and astonishing digital effects to render the septuagenarian performers as reasonable facsimilies of their thirty- and forty-something selves. As somebody who grew up with Scorsese’s movies – and did so in the very Queens-Nassau border area where Goodfellas takes place, and could lead you on a walking tour of the place if you really wanted me to – I queued up Netflix to watch The Irishman as soon as I possibly could…
…and couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before.
I’m not talking about Scorsese’s other gangster movies, or claiming that The Irishman is a retread of Mean Streets or Casino. It’s not; its elegiac tone is wildly different from Scorsese’s other movies in this genre. This isn’t the story of a young hothead trying to prove himself; it’s the story of an old man – and it’s shocking how old DeNiro looks and sounds in this – trying to make sense of what he’s done. The camera work is still and stately; there’s nary a Rolling Stones track to be heard.
No, I didn’t feel, watching The Irishman, that I was watching the same Martin Scorsese movie I’d seen countless times before. Instead, I felt like I was watching a Mafioso version of Forrest Gump.
Both Irishman and Gump span decades, with their lead characters careening from one chance encounter to another with historical figures of the day. Gump met JFK at the White House; Frank Sheeran drives trucks for figures reputedly connected to his assassination. And crucially, the protagonists have this parade of encounters by accident. Gump’s a naif who happens to blunder into history time and time again; Sheehan falls into crime through a chance roadside encounter. Though each narrates their own story, they’re both inarticulate, both confused by the history in which they wind up playing a critical part. They’re fundamentally passive characters. The madness of the twentieth century is a thing that happens to them, and whether it’s presented as divine grace or tragic flaw, the critical thing about them as characters is that they do not understand it.
The little guy swept up in the tide of history is, of course, a classic character, with plenty of examples in world fiction and American cinema. But when, for example, Humphrey Bogart says that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, he does so after shooting the chief Nazi villain. Protagonists used to consciously take action, even if it felt futile to do so. And when they didn’t, there was usually a deliberate, satirical point being made by the omission. Heck, the original model for the “bumbling innocent” story structure used in Irishman and (especially) Gump is Voltaire’s Candide, which is one of the most vicious satires ever written.
But somewhere along the line, this stopped being satire. It’s become a comforting myth, a way of assuaging ourselves that we’re not responsible for the madness surrounding us. It’s become that insistent Billy Joel refrain, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” And as far as I’m concerned, it’s an incredibly dangerous myth – since both figuratively and literally, we are surrounded in this world by fires that we indeed have started ourselves.
Irishman doesn’t endorse this myth at all – it is, after all, portrayed as the self-serving rationalizations of a violent criminal. But I still couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the movie, for all its wonderful qualities (seriously, the Pesci performance is magnificent). This myth of us as bumbling innocents navigating a world we never made is ultimately so dangerous that a mournful critique like Scorsese provides here isn’t sufficient.
Quite frankly, it’s a myth that needs to be whacked.