A timeline of criminality from the perspective of mafia middle management,
Robert De Niro plays Sheeran, a truck driver and World War II veteran who befriends and later becomes business associates with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a well-known mafioso. Working as a smuggler and hit man, Sheeran quietly ascends the organizational ladder to become one of Bufalino’s most trusted lieutenants. But when Bufalino assigns him to monitor and protect Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), Sheeran discovers that there are networks of criminality further reaching than he ever imagined, controlling not just unions or industries but government agencies.
Sheeran soon joins Hoffa’s inner circle, earning a key role in the Teamsters. But when Hoffa goes to jail, losing his job as president of the Teamsters union, Sheeran becomes a go-between and negotiator not just for Bufalino’s secret criminal enterprises but corrupt maneuvering within the Teamsters engineered by Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Soon, Sheeran must choose between his loyalty to the Bufalino family and to Hoffa, whose determination to reclaim his title—and obstinate refusal to kowtow to his political adversaries—threatens to expose, and undermine, the operations controlled by his mafia backers.
When Scorsese made
At almost four hours, Scorsese isn’t working as propulsively as he was on
The timeline of the film backs up as far as WWII and continues until Sheeran’s final days in 2004, and Scorsese’s much-ballyhooed use of CGI to de-age De Niro and his co-stars works inconsistently—at least insofar as there are some times when it feels seamless and others when it definitely doesn’t. But what is more important in the movie, and perhaps to Scorsese himself, is the way that Sheeran’s role in American history is both crucial and seemingly invisible; he wasn’t a mob boss or significant leader within the Teamsters organization, but his actions fundamentally impacted industries and government organizations for decades to come. He came of age within the Bufalino organization at the exact moment that the country discovered and actualized itself, baking in the criminality and corruption that continues to plague our institutions today despite the best efforts of idealists and justice-seekers.
Scorsese creates an atmosphere of manipulation and control that legitimizes the hearsay suggesting that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was mob-driven, for example, and then reinforces it with accounts of behavior from real people who improbably but truthfully found themselves in the middle of key moments in American industrial and political history. How does a man delivering trucks to Sheeran later take center stage delivering grand jury testimony in front of Congress to legitimize a conflict halfway across the globe? How does these connections evolve? Scorsese shows the way that they were real, and how they went virtually unchecked for decades while these men quietly served as gatekeepers to fortify their own fortunes, support their allies and exorcise personal grievances on a national stage. That this behavior continues today in different permutations, with further-reaching ramifications, offers a haunting punchline to the life of one man who toiled just outside the spotlight on behalf of headline-grabbing crime lords and politicians.
De Niro is not quite equal to the task of playing his youngest self—he’s the oldest-seeming 25-year-old I’ve ever encountered—but he certainly owns Sheeran’s not-always-quiet authority, his escalating responsibility and increasing anxiety over a life of brutality that forces him to choose between competing loyalties. It’s a 500-yard look back at a life filled with matter-of-fact moments that would on their own horrify most ordinary individuals, and De Niro carries that age and perspective with tragic beauty. Pesci, returned from unofficial retirement, seems at ease in his authority as Bufalino but never asleep or lazily rendering the character’s dance between affability and menace. Pacino, meanwhile, continues to indulge his own late-stage theatricality as the charismatic Hoffa, but uses it to showcase the way in which the union leader forced the hand of his benefactors by never doing the thing that Sheeran always did—namely, understanding where the limitations of his power ended, and the control of others began.
As Sheeran’s grown daughter Peggy, Anna Paquin isn’t mentioned above, and she has only a handful of lines (if any). But she provides a crucial presence in the film, playing an observer to Sheeran’s behavior that no one else was, including Frank himself. Peggy is the witness of his agent of corruption and violence—not just to himself, or to her, or to their family, but to the soul of America as it struggled to solidify the institutions purported to make it great. An extraordinarily powerful film that starts with a single man and pulls back to expose the country that for better—and especially worse—he helped make,