Until recently the name of Jimmy Hoffa was little known outside America, but The Irishman’s release on Netflix made its controversial and haunted existence popular around the world. The syndicalist originally from Indiana has indeed distinguished the struggles of workers between the 1950s and 1960s, before a sudden fall due to multiple judicial causes and a “difficult” nature that made him unpopular with the authorities. What is most interesting in the purely cinematographic field, however, are the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, still shrouded in uncertainty today.
As told by Martin Scorsese in his recent masterpiece, poised between existential drama and high school gangster-movie, the revelations of the alleged murderer dating back to 2003 seem to have shed some clarity, but there are still many doubts about this. about it.
Those magnificent three and a half hours of viewing, however, were not the first incarnation of the story and its characters on the big screen. In fact, at the beginning of the 90s it was Danny DeVito who tried his hand at the enterprise, sitting behind the camera and engaging in the role of co-star, entrusting the controversial character to a histrionic and over the top actor like Jack Nicholson.
So let’s find out together Hoffa’s merits and weaknesses, a film from which Scorsese himself must have partially taken inspiration at least for what concerns the chronological trend.
From the end to the beginning
Also on this occasion we find ourselves in front of a narration that alternates the actual present, just prior to the tragedy in the making, which is filled by numerous flashbacks that show us the rise to power of the protagonist.
If in The Irishman the story was more far-reaching, with the story largely focused on the key figure of Frank Sheeran, on this occasion the script follows the path of a real biopic about Hoffa, alpha and omega of the whole vision. Sheeran does not even appear here, but his character has been absorbed by that of Bobby Ciaro, right-hand man of the trade unionist who embodies several peculiarities by merging them with those of his other advisers.
The two met in 1935, when Hoffa was trying to organize a movement of workers to give fair earnings to the truck drivers and thus secure the role of future leader of the party in the making. After the first contrasts, Hoffa and Ciaro become inseparable and in the long season of strikes they make deals with the mafia, giving way to an alliance that will benefit both sides.
Even with the help from the criminal organization Hoffa manages to be elected president of the International Brotherhood of Truckers, but his tense relations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and with the country’s wealthiest businessmen risk creating quite a few headaches for him.
The old and the new
In comparison with Scorsese’s film, Hoffa clearly loses the challenge. That staged by DeVito is in fact an ambitious but equally didactic operation, which has its moments but fails to maintain the same level of rhythm and intensity for its entire duration (about two hours and twenty minutes) and with some time dead to peep into the tale.
The director / actor came from the great success of The War of the Roses (1989), his second test as a filmmaker, to settle on a concept of biopic with an old-school cut, based on clear and precise steps. If the expedient that we mentioned at the beginning of the last paragraph, that of the present narrative base from which to rewind the memories of the past, indeed possesses a certain charm – and must have influenced the similar development of The Irishman – they visual artifices for setting changes are original and effective on several occasions, the tension component suffers from several falls and the emotional side suffers in the long run.
Over the limits
Hoffa’s ambiguity is excessively marked here, it deprives him of those nuances necessary for the construction of a hypothetical empathy towards him and, it is strange to say, good part of the blame perhaps goes to Jack Nicholson’s performance. And it’s ironic to think that the casting voices wanted Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among the top picks for the part.
Recognizable immediately despite the excellent make-up (for which the film received one of the two Oscar nominations along with that for photography), Nicholson often works an exhausting over-acting, between his typical arching of eyebrows and a shouted acting even when not strictly necessary, risking to make his alter-ego a sort of hysterical speck.
At times overflowing and elsewhere held back, so much so that it received both a Golden Globe and a Razzie nomination, his Jimmy Hoffa paradoxically ends up highlighting DeVito’s performance, able to moderate the eternal supporting actor of Bobby Ciaro with the right tones. Convincing are Armand Assante in the role of Mafia leader Carol D’Allesandro and the copious number of secondary figures.
A surface approach
If The Irishman has managed through a river narrative, full of ideas and shadows, to immerse himself in a historical and social context of great changes, with the specter of the underworld that hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of the protagonists, Hoffa sins precisely in the reconstruction of human relationships, favoring the side dish over the main juice. The impression is that of a choral approach, more attentive to background details than to the primeval soul that such an enigmatic existence hid in its folds.
In any case, there are sequences of great impact, from the ruthless attack against the workers on strike – in this regard the number of extras is remarkable – up to some of the trial phases that see Jimmy / Nicholson absolute protagonist.
Or the scene in the mirror in which Ciaro reveals a sardonic bitterness with a visionary disposition or that ending that takes liberties, due to the fact that in those years many things were still unknown about the real fate of the trade unionist, and which is powerful and elegiac at the right point.
But when the credits arrive, there is a sense of partial incompleteness, also underlined by the subtitle used for the Italian distribution, that is Saint or mafia?: the problem is that if the film itself does not take a stand, the public will be unaccustomed to side or not with an individual so uncertainly suspended between glory and defeat.
DeVito and colleague / screenwriter David Mamet focus on the outside, on everything that surrounds the career path – even in its most devious offshoots – and political, and to fail is that human side that would have guaranteed greater smoothness to the whole ensemble, here too preoccupied with details to be really exciting and complete.