From The Iliad to The Irishman

The Irishman is in many ways Scorsese’s saddest film. Its central tragic conflict centers on people who, while engaged in violent and heady power struggles throughout their lives, prove wholly incapable of managing basic human relationships and living through the utter ordinariness of life.

Scorsese lays the blame for Hoffa’s downfall upon his haughty and insolent behavior in and immediately following his jail sentence. His poorly disguised disdain for his fellow prisoner Tony Pro escalates when they have both finished their sentences, and Hoffa asks Tony for support in his attempt to regain control of the union:

Tony: He said he’ll take care of it, no questions asked. You wouldn’t do that but he will. I meant the other thing.

Hoffa: What other thing?

Tony: You know.

Hoffa: I don’t know.

Tony: Your apology.

Hoffa: My apology? My apology for what?

Tony: For what you said when you were sitting there eating your ice cream like some fucking king.

Hoffa’s inability to strike a conciliatory tone mirrors the attitudes of both Agamemnon and Achilles in their quarrel at the beginning of the Iliad. Unable to make even slight conciliatory gestures to the opposite party, each of these characters brings ruin upon himself when a simple ‘sorry’ would have yielded dividends. As narrator, Frank points to Hoffa’s time in jail as the beginning of everything falling apart.

Tragedy is the result of individual choices, but in some ways the saddest part of life is the inexorable fate which awaits us all, brought on by the ravages of time. I felt genuinely sad watching Joe Pesci’s hands shake as he denied that he was able to eat bread any more due to his advanced age and failing health. He was introduced and maintained his presence throughout the film as one of its most powerful operators, but he was rendered wholly unable to eat the bread and wine which he and Frank had bonded over during their first shared meal. While this may be a mechanism for heightening the pathos and hinting that Russell, unable to eat the bread, is thus separated from the possibility of communion and redemption, it also strongly suggests the spirit underlying Tennyson’s Ulysses when he says

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.

In his final scene, Russell says that he is going to church and tells Frank not to laugh. How far degraded from the power broker he once was. Frank, however, has the misfortune to survive his time in jail and struggle to adapt to a dull and ordinary life, spurned by his daughters, and abandoned to the care of the nursing home.

The inability to return to a boring life of plain domesticity is characteristic both of the tragic figures drawn from the Trojan cycle who return home, as well as of the criminal figures whom Scorsese so often profiles. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill tells us, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” By the end of the movie, Henry is no longer a gangster, but a washed up loser and a rat. Similarly, in The Irishman, everyone either ends up dead or, like Frank, forced to reckon with the mundane tragedy of everyday existence once the high times have ended. Menelaus and Nestor seem to do well enough, but Agamemnon is murdered when he returns home, and, if any of the post-Odyssey stories hold any weight, the comforts of home actually had little to offer Odysseus.

At the close of the movie, Frank waxes Nestorian when his nurse asks about a picture of his daughter Peggy posing with Jimmy Hoffa.

Nurse: Who’s that with her?

Frank: You don’t know who that is?

Nurse: No.

Frank: Jimmy Hoffa.

Nurse: Oh, yeah.

Frank: Yeah, right, “Oh, yeah.” You don’t know who he is.

Nurse: Okay, I don’t.

Frank: Yeah. Oh, boy, you don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.

It is fashionable to make fun of Nestor for being so sentimentally nostalgic for a lost time when men were better and more heroic, but this is the very nostalgia on which heroic poetry itself was based. Similarly, Scorsese’s films often exude a kind of wistful nostalgia, especially for the middle of the 20th century. As the narrator, Frank is well aware of the fact that people now don’t really know much or care much about Jimmy Hoffa. His comments on this score are a metapoetic conceit whereby Scorsese, who surely dove deep into Hoffa history, is able to nudge the audience slyly about his own choice of subject, while simultaneously reflecting upon the transience of time. Hoffa may have been a minor king in his own day, but time and folly robbed him of his power and his fame, as he has now been abandoned to the curio cabinet of history.

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may

not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,

till he find it stopping a bung-hole? (Hamlet 5.1)

Many of the other power players and potentates who appear throughout the film appear with captions below them at their first appearance, providing information on their date and manner of death. These have the effect of cinematic footnotes, and suggest that all of these characters are now just that – footnotes in a largely forgotten history. The movie itself is a real triple decker (at three and a half hours), and though it goes by quickly (as Frank himself suggested), one cannot help but feel that the slow burn of the film is meant to thumb the nose at fleeting time itself.

The gangsters who died in the middle of mob activity are the most Achillean of the characters, if for no other reason than in each case, an early death cut one off from the possibility of old age, drab disappointment, and lonely domesticity. Hoffa’s death is like that of Agamemnon: murdered by someone he trusted after withdrawing (or rather, being forced out) from the scene of glory. Frank, however, is something more like Odysseus: his involvement in a particular conflict had become such an integral part of his character and worldview that he was wholly unsuited for domestic personal relationships. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote, the most important scene in Frank’s narrative arc is not killing Hoffa, but being wholly rejected by his daughter Peggy. In a subsequent scene, another of his daughters reveals to him just how entirely isolated from his family he has been for his entire life.

There is a tendency to think that tragedy occurs in the middle of great and impressive action, but a fair number of tragic figures simply cannot manage the everyday details of basic human life: being happy at home, content with enough, conceding a small piece of your vanity and apologizing to defuse a tense situation. George Eliot managed to spin an entire novel out of the tragedy and the heroism of quiet, unglamorous, everyday life. We should not be too take in by the grand setting and weighty backdrop of so many of our narratives: in the end, they’re all just about living.

“Just about anybody can face a crisis. It’s that everyday living that’s rough.” (Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, 1954)

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3 thoughts on “From The Iliad to The Irishman

  1. The final quote of this essay is transcendent, but the bread and wine thing is amazing. Thank you. I thought Peggy’s role was more as the chorus.

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