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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman takes on the director’s whole history — and could win him his second Oscar

Our roundtable discusses the Best Picture chances for Martin Scorsese’s mobster epic.

A scene from The Irishman
In many ways, The Irishman is a culmination of Scorsese’s entire body of work.
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the OscarsBest Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard-bearer for the current moment.

And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its present accomplishments and future aspirations.

Every year, the slate of Best Picture nominees approximates the movies that the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, both in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.

The most-nominated film overall is one of the year’s most commercially successful (and one of its most controversial). A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.

In the run-up to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox policy reporter Dylan Scott, associate culture editor Allegra Frank, and film critic Alissa Wilkinson talk about The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s tour de force gangster epic.

Alissa: The Irishman was easily one of my favorite movies of the year — and the Academy sure liked it too, giving it 10 Oscar nominations, though that’s no shocker given who made it, who stars in it, and what it represents for the history of film. I admit I was a little skeptical going in, given its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, rumored $175 million budget, and “de-aging” effects and all that. And about two hours in, I started getting worried that while I was really enjoying it, it was basically Goodfellas, and I wasn’t going to have anything worthwhile to say about it. But the last hour or so completely turns what came before on its nose — very much by design, of course.

I saw the film on a big screen. Where did you see it? And what was your first impression?

Allegra: I’m jealous that you got to see The Irishman in a proper theater, Alissa! I had to replicate the traditional movie-going experience at home, in the dark, on my TV. I imagine a lot of people watched it that way, or even on their laptop or phone, given that it’s a Netflix film and thus available to stream. However, I do appreciate that the streaming option is available to the masses, as The Irishman is certainly a movie that necessitates being seen widely. I absolutely loved it, even if I was also wary of that heinous runtime. “Watch it in parts!” my friends told me. “Take breaks! You’ll need them.” Reader, I did not need them. I sat and ingested all of The Irishman in one complete sitting. I’ve never watched any of Scorsese’s mob movies, which I think was to my benefit in this case; I was focused on the intimacy of the scale, watching these men connect and disconnect over decades. I was hooked from the get-go by the gorgeous, quiet character drama.

At the same time, it was hard to ignore that The Irishman is indeed very white and very male, as many people have pointed out. And I can also appreciate that it contains echoes of Scorsese’s well-known prior work, even if I haven’t seen all of that prior work. Did the director’s filmography impact your viewing, Dylan?

Dylan: I wish I could introduce some tension to this discussion, but I was likewise enthralled with the movie and that was very much, I think, because of my affection for Marty’s prior mob pictures. They were undeniably formative for me as an aspiring cinephile. I actually revisited Goodfellas a few weeks before I saw The Irishman so it was particularly fresh for my viewing (on Netflix, split into two watches, so we’ve covered the spectrum).

One of the reasons I think The Irishman works so well as a capstone to Scorsese’s fascination with the mafia is that each of his gangster movies have also served as a snapshot of where the director himself was in his life. Mean Streets (1973) is the creation of a young whiz kid, simultaneously repulsed and allured by the criminal lifestyle. Goodfellas (1990) and especially Casino (1995) reflect somebody in middle age, more attuned to the grimy and mundane mechanics of daily life. Hell, Casino is basically set in middle management. The Departed (2006) is maybe an outlier here, it’s more of a genre exercise than the others, but it is still obsessed with the relationships between parents and their children (fathers and sons specifically) in a way that feels of a piece.

So The Irishman feels like the natural end point, dwelling as it does on old age, regrets, and impending death. I had a similar experience to Alissa’s: The film didn’t fully click for me until it moved into the extended coda, as Robert De Niro’s character carries the memory of what he did to someone whom I think he would call a good friend through the years, leading to an existence of crushing isolation and moral desolation. That is something I found much more resonant now than I think I would have 10 years ago. And Scorsese seems more equipped to convey those heady themes than at any prior point in his career.

Alissa: Death is the most important part of The Irishman, from the alternate title that appears several times in the film (I Heard You Paint Houses is the name of the book on which the movie’s based, but it’s clearly not about house painting) to the subtitles that reveal the date and cause of death for characters as soon as they appear on screen to the long, long coda, with that last shot of Frank (De Niro) looking through the slightly open door. I’m getting chills just writing about that. It’s a man taking stock of his whole life and, importantly, starting to grapple (however falteringly) with how his choices had real impact on those around him, from his friend to his family.

Which brings me to the other chilling and indelible scene of the film, for me: when Frank’s daughter (played by Marin Ireland) tells him that the women in the family were always scared to come to him for help because of the way he’d react, and he is kind of stunned and disbelieving. And, of course, that’s part of the larger (and to my mind, unfounded) conversation around whether Anna Paquin, as Frank’s eldest daughter, should have had more lines of dialogue in the film. It seemed obvious to me from the get-go that The Irishman was filtered directly through Frank’s eyes, from the slightly fuzzy effect of the de-aging to the way he brushes past the women in his life, only to be hit across the head with the realization later on.

That’s why I go cross-eyed in response to the idea that the film is evidence of how Frank (and, by extension, Martin Scorsese) disregards women. First, it’s silly to say that about the guy who gave us Age of Innocence and The King of Comedy and so many other movies with great roles for women. (I just watched Raging Bull and marveled again.) But the ways Frank has misread his own life, especially in his relationships with the women in his family, is also, in a sense, the entire point of the movie. Nobody “matters” more to Frank, he thinks and claims, than his family — his wife (and then his second wife) and daughters. But actually, the only thing that ever mattered to Frank was Frank. His realization of that is so important for the narrative.

I think the arguments about how white Scorsese’s characters are in this movie are interesting (especially since he took some flack in his last film, Silence, for its focus on “white saviors” instead of the Japanese characters). The characters in The Irishman are quite notably Irish and Italian — that’s an important part of who they are, to the point that it’s the title of the film. And of course, to be Italian or Irish in America for a great deal of the 19th and 20th centuries was to experience racial discrimination. Not in the same way as your black contemporaries, to be sure, but there was some similarities. (Interestingly, this topic was also very underexplored in last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book.)

All that said: What are your thoughts on how these matters were handled in The Irishman? Or were there other subtle details that stood out to you?

Dylan: I couldn’t have phrased my take on Paquin’s character any better than you did, Alissa, so I won’t try.

I will say I wish we had gotten a smidge more time with Kathrine Narducci as mob wife Carrie Bufalino and Welker White as Jo “wife of Jimmy” Hoffa. They both leave such lasting impressions in brief scenes — Narducci in a flashback (one of the few not from Frank’s perspective) in which she barely flinches when her husband, played by Joe Pesci, comes home covered in blood, and White when her husband Jimmy, played by Al Pacino, marvels at her political guile and ruthlessness. I know that’s an absurd complaint for a movie that’s three and a half hours long — why not make it four?! — but I felt a little disappointed about Narducci in particular because her star turn comes so early in the film and then she sorta disappears. But that is less a complaint about inclusion than about my wishing the film had more fully utilized those strong performances and characters.

To me, Scorsese’s track record on race is a more serious beef — Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman in particular, this trilogy of sorts, are unbearably white. And while I totally agree that there is interesting history to mine regarding discrimination against Irish and Italians (something Scorsese does quite well in 2002’s Gangs of New York), I’m not sure he shows much interest in exploring that in The Irishman. That makes the whiteness a little more pronounced.

Then again, this is the director who made Kundun, a film about the Dalai Lama. It’s complicated.

Allegra: I co-sign how you both feel about the female characters in the film — I loved how Paquin’s character had such a close relationship with Jimmy Hoffa, the ultimate shyster, but could barely stand to be around her father. The look that she and Frank share when she realizes he most likely killed her beloved Uncle Jimmy is so searing; it’s a breathtaking moment where a father-daughter relationship long on the brink disintegrates into nothingness. Her father only cares about himself, indeed; he would even pick off his best friend if it were in his best interest to do so.

Meanwhile, perhaps the reason I have never seen any of Scorsese’s other mob movies is their blatant lack of diversity. I want to blame the point of view, in that The Irishman is a story told through the eyes of a white man about the other white men in his life. Frank surrounds himself with people who understand and accept him, which in that era were other Italian or Irish guys. They didn’t face discrimination the same way black people did during that time period, like you said, Alissa, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t experience prejudice. Still, I also think Scorsese needs to challenge himself to play around not only with technical effects but also the conventions of his material. Just as The Irishman is atypically meditative for its genre, Scorsese could stand to tell a story that deviates from his recent pattern of following Western European white men into the depths of hell. Maybe The Irishman’s racial myopia would be less irksome to me if it weren’t so par for the course of the director’s oeuvre of late.

Alissa: I think I agree, because I’d love to see what Scorsese would do now returning to some of his older material, and am curious how it would be received — the question of whether those are his stories to tell is a live one, and an important one. But I think he knows that too, which accounts for why he has executive produced a bunch of movies, many from underrepresented directors, in the past few years (like The Souvenir and Uncut Gems and Diane and Happy as Lazzaro and A Ciambra) and has also been the driving force behind the World Cinema Project, which has been relentlessly restoring and preserving neglected films from around the world, mostly from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, South America, and the Middle East. I do really admire Scorsese’s willingness to throw his weight behind fostering younger and more diverse voices, rather than getting too territorial about his own turf. (The same goes for Brad Pitt, whose production company is behind Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, among others — including Scorsese’s own The Departed.)

Anyhow. I would like to ask you about the de-aging effects in this film. Do you think they work? If they don’t, did that detract for you?

Allegra: Thank you for bringing up Scorsese’s World Cinema project, Alissa! It’s really important to remember that he has done a whole lot of good for international filmmakers, as well as for smaller films that might not have gotten made otherwise. I have to admit, though, that his own excellent taste and awareness of the breadth of cinema does leave me a little extra frustrated with how he tends to stick to a smaller handful of perspectives in his own movies.

Part of that is because Scorsese really is so attracted to trying new things formally. Which brings me to your question about The Irishman’s much ballyhooed de-aging effects, used to allow the film’s aging actors to play their character’s younger selves, too: I didn’t think the effects were bad. They worked for me in the sense that I wasn’t distracted by them. But I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to however old the characters were supposed to be in specific terms. I was more attracted to the spirit of exercise, in that sense: Watching these men age and creep closer to death was moving more because of what was happening around them and less because they looked like they were physically getting older. Although, considering the nearly $200 million that Netflix spent making Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci look slightly less wrinkly, maybe I should have been more affected by the fancy-schmancy computer effects.

Alissa: That is a great point. What could Scorsese-level money do for underrepresented filmmakers?

Dylan: For me, I quickly adjusted to the effects and they didn’t particularly phase me. I had seen some grumbles before watching that the de-aging is obvious more in the way the actors move than in their faces, actually, and I did find that to be true. I wonder if that will always be a limitation of this kind of subtle motion capture — you can make the physique work, but not the physical movements. Or you need an actor and characters like Will Smith’s in Gemini Man, who has aged so well he can pull off a 25-year-old version of himself. But it was probably asking too much of Robert De Niro’s back for him to convincingly play somebody in their late 20s again.

Alissa: Personally, I found the effects distracting at first. But then I started to think about how The Irishman is built around recounting Frank’s story through Frank’s own memories, and the haziness (and even the way they moved, in a sense) started to make some sense. Truthfully I’m not sure that was really the idea, but it sure did work for me.

Last question: Given the success of The Irishman as a film, do you feel more or less positive toward Netflix’s ongoing effort to “disrupt” the movie industry? Or did it have no effect at all? And which director do you next want to see get Marvel-level money from Netflix?

Allegra: I used to be very resistant toward the idea of watching prestige cinema on Netflix, until I realized I watch most excellent movies at home, anyway. Why can’t I do the same thing with Oscar-baiting big-name films? I still think watching Roma on my couch was a weird experience that I would have rather had in a theater, but I absolutely loved watching The Irishman at home, and I think the accessibility Netflix offers translates to more people having more access to really interesting quality cinema all at the same time, which is a net positive.

For Netflix’s next trick: Give me something totally absurd. Like, an Ang Lee epic that’s 400 minutes long and in 120 fps and with an entire cast of CGI-ed actors playing younger and older versions of themselves at once. I want Netflix to let people get WEIRD!

Dylan: I’m an optimist about Netflix, too. Selfishly, as a new parent, the fact that I can watch two Best Picture nominees (the other being Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story) at home on a subscription service I’ve already paid for is really appealing.

It’s easy for me to imagine a world where the kind of movies we all lament the disappearance of — smart, serious(ish) non-franchises — enjoy a renaissance through Netflix and its competitors. I have nothing but respect for the executive who signed off on an auteur-driven $175 million picture about mortality and the deterioration of American institutions. (Hoffa and the mob figures track that decline: Some people end up dead, the others decrepit and alone in a senseless pursuit of power.)

So yes, please, $200 million for Ang Lee’s next attempt to make high frame rates work. And just as importantly, I hope what Netflix learns from its success with The Irishman is to take risks. That doesn’t just mean spending a lot of money, but trying out directors and stories that aren’t as obvious as “a Martin Scorsese gangster flick.”

One of the best movies I watched this year was Atlantics, a strange fable from Senegal, and I saw it because it was distributed by Netflix. So long as the big red N can find a way to keep supporting both the Scorseses of the world and the Mati Diops, I think film lovers will be just fine.

Alissa: I happen to have seen a few films from around the world that Netflix has already picked up for distribution later this year, Dylan, and I think we’re all in for a treat. Maximalism and minimalism! We want it all!

Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:

1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite

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