‘The Irishman’ stirs controversy over its version of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa

Cleveland Entertainment 2 weeks ago

As a movie, “The Irishman” is earning spectacular reviews, especially for director Martin’s Scorsese’s meditation on mortality, Robert De Niro’s enigmatic portrayal of a hit man and Al Pacino’s dynamic performance as Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.

But as a history lesson, does the three-hour-plus saga offer a credible explanation for what happened to Hoffa, whose disappearance in 1975 remains one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries?

Or is “The Irishman” another “JFK”? Oliver Stone’s 1991 drama impressed audiences with its sweep and audacity, but its convoluted theory on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was considered a fantasy by serious researchers.

FBI agents and investigative journalists have spent decades trying to unlock the secrets of what happened to James Riddle Hoffa, the former labor union president who was last seen in the parking lot of the now-defunct Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township.

Hoffa has been the subject of several books, a biopic (1992’s “Hoffa” starring Jack Nicholson) and a TV miniseries (1983’s “Blood Feud” with Robert Blake). His name is still used as a pop-culture punchline for vanishing without a trace. Just last Wednesday, CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert dropped a Hoffa reference into his monologue on the impeachment inquiry.

There’s not much disagreement about why Hoffa was targeted. The consensus is that the mob conspired to kill Hoffa to stop his efforts to return to power within the Teamsters.

The details of the day he went missing also seem clear. According to what Hoffa’s family told authorities, he was waiting for a 2 p.m. meeting with organized crime figures Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano. It was supposed to be a fence-mending occasion between Hoffa and Provenzano, who’d had a falling-out. But Hoffa called his wife at 2:15 p.m. to tell her nobody showed up.

The rest is history. Or, rather, it’s a complicated, inconclusive bunch of theories with a lengthy cast of notorious characters that remains — as the Free Press described it days after the disappearance — “a rat’s nest of rumors and speculation.”

Some theories are formed from facts and credible clues. Others are the stuff of mythmaking, like the dubious claim that Hoffa was buried under the now-demolished Giants Stadium in New Jersey. For the uninitiated, sorting out the numerous competing versions of Hoffa’s fate is like falling down a rabbit hole of possible answers.

Continuing searches for Hoffa’s remains have failed to turn up answers. Plus, most of the figures who likely were involved in the case have died either violently or from old age, a theme that Scorsese explores in “The Irishman.”

DE NIRO PLAYS FRANK SHEERAN

One of those long-gone figures, Frank Sheeran, is played by De Niro in “The Irishman,” which is out in select theaters and will be available Nov. 27 on Netflix. The movie is based on the best-selling 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It was De Niro, a longtime collaborator of Scorsese’s, who brought the book to the director’s attention when another project they were considering wasn’t panning out.

In the film’s version of events, Sheeran is a truck driver from Philadelphia who gets taken under the wing of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for the part). Sheeran also forms a solid friendship with Hoffa (Pacino), working at his side and socializing with his family. When Hoffa defies the mob’s request to back off attempts to regain control of the Teamsters, Bufalino hands Sheeran the assignment that’s also the ultimate betrayal.

The early reviews have praised it as a riveting saga that compresses about 50 years of history into a richly layered character study, thanks to superb acting, Steven Zaillian’s resonant script and Scorsese’s masterful touch.

But already, before it’s even landed on Netflix, it’s drawing some high-profile criticism for relying on Sheeran’s confessions in “I Heard You Paint Houses.”

An August story for Slate titled “The Lies of the Irishman” argues that there is little credibility to Sheeran’s claims and mocks him as “the Forrest Gump of organized crime.”

Vanity Fair complains that “‘The Irishman’ is merely based on Sheeran’s account of what happened, implying a lack of substantial analysis. The magazine summed up the alleged hit man’s assertions as a laughable tale “that found zero merit with a number of FBI agents, prosecutors, reporters, and criminals who knew Sheeran.”

And in a New York Review of Books essay, Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and author of a new acclaimed book, “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” shares his belief that Sheeran’s declaration that he killed Hoffa is preposterous. He also tracks various other stories Sheeran told during his lifetime, including one involving contract killers tied to the Nixon White House.

Brandt wasn’t available for an interview, but he asked his publisher to provide the Free Press with this comment: “I spent five years interrogating Frank Sheeran, using my experience and knowledge to ensure that only the truth made it into my book. The weighing of evidence is a complex undertaking that does not lend itself to short format pieces such as articles and interviews. I ask kindly that people read my book. It speaks for itself.”

Scorsese, for his part, is being careful to point out that the movie is a separate creature from the book.

At an event at the Directors Guild of America theater in New York City, Scorsese talked to Spike Lee about the real importance of Sheeran’s cinematic journey wasn’t alleged conspiracies: “What we found, when Bob told me the story of that character … the story is about people living a life, a tough life, love, trust, betrayal, remorse, regret.”

At a New York Film Festival news conference, Scorsese noted during an audience question that “this is not Frank Sheeran in the film, it’s some character we all created.”

De Niro has defended the account in “I Heard You Paint Houses,” while agreeing with Scorsese’s comments.

The actor told IndieWire, “As Marty says, we’re not saying we’re telling the actual story, we’re telling our story. I believed it.”

De Niro then said, “I know one thing — I know all the stuff that Frank (Sheeran) said, the descriptions of the places he was at, the way he talked, that’s all real. The way he describes what happened to Hoffa is a very plausible thing to me. I’d love to hear what actually happened to him. But this made a lot of sense to me.”

EXPERTS DOUBT THEORY IN ‘THE IRISHMAN’

Dan Moldea, author of the 1978 book “The Hoffa Wars,” has been researching Hoffa’s disappearance for more than 40 years. He actually spoke to De Niro in 2014 and warned him of his doubts about Sheeran.

“I told him, ‘Bob, you’re being conned.’ I told him in no uncertain terms, ‘Bob, you are being conned,’” Moldea described in a Daily Beast article by former Detroit investigative TV reporter Vince Wade.

Moldea saw “The Irishman” at a preview last week and gives it an enthusiastic “five stars” — as a stunning piece of cinema. “I didn’t think I was going to like it as much as I did,” he admits.

As for the story line, Moldea calls it a fantasy filled with false facts. “For me, this is Martin’s Scorsese’s homage to Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK,’” he says. “It’s great filmmaking, but bad history.”

Moldea says he’s about ready to reveal reporting connected to the Hoffa case that could be “groundbreaking.” His lengthy quest has led him to believe it essentially was a New Jersey operation “from soup to nuts,” and he notes that he’s interviewed all the suspected killers in his search for definitive information.

“I am Ahab and the Hoffa case is my white whale,” he says. Moldea is well aware of the passage of time. “Right now, it’s the sons of the people who were involved, who have now gotten old and are now confessing to the sins of their fathers,” he says.

Although Moldea doesn’t like the fact that Sheeran’s version of events will be widely spread by “The Irishman” to younger generations who may not even be familiar with Hoffa, he hopes it will encourage more scrutiny of the real-life case.

“What I like is the movie is now putting Jimmy Hoffa back on the public’s radar screen and that means the work I’ve been doing for 44 years on his murder is now getting a further examination,” says Moldea.

For Detroit-based mob expert and investigative reporter Scott Burnstein, “The Irishman” is nothing short of “historical blasphemy.”

Says Burnstein, who hadn’t seen the movie before being interviewed, says, “They’re promoting a historical falsehood.”

Burnstein, whose work can be found at the Oakland Press and the online Gangster Report, says it is “99.9%” certain that Hoffa’s remains will never be found. As for the reasons behind the Hoffa unsolved mystery? He credits that to both the lack of a body and the “ultimate smooth criminals” of Detroit’s organized crime, which he thinks had the key role in what happened.

“Through the history of the American Mafia, nobody has mastered the art of the gangland murder more than the Detroit Mafia. They’ve cracked it. They’ve made it a science,” he says.

The debate over “The Irishman” could last through the Oscars, given early predictions that it will be a strong awards contender. That, of course, doesn’t guarantee there will be an end the Hoffa mystery by the time the golden statuettes are passed out — or ever.

Says Burnstein, “I do not have a lot of faith that we will come to a definitive answer any time in the future. I think we know what we know. We have 95% of the puzzle. I just don’t think the final 5% will probably ever be told.”

And if “The Irishman” needs another slogan for its posters, Burnstein has a perfect one. He calls the Hoffa saga “the story that never dies.”

By Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

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©2019 Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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