Within hours of The Irishman’s Netflix debut, questions arose. How could Frank Sheeran, a largely unknown man, be so closely involved with the mafia’s biggest historical events? How could Sheeran have committed two of the most notorious murders of the 20th century and gotten away with both?
But those questions miss the point—The Irishman’s obvious fiction is what makes it great.
The Irishman adapts Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses. Brandt, an attorney, based the book on deathbed interviews with mob-adjacent Teamster official Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) where Sheeran claimed to have murdered both Jimmy Hoffa and Crazy Joe Gallo—two of the most infamous mafia hits of the 20th century. Facts surrounding both deaths are disputed.
Most movies about the mob coast on embellishment and exaggeration of actual events. Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Casino were based on real-life accounts of organized crime. Both are masterpieces rife with broken timelines, factual inaccuracies and flat-out fabrication.
The Irishman may well have taken that fabrication to another level. Sheeran runs into high-profile organized crime figures so often, he seems like the “Forrest Gump of organized crime,” as Slate’s Bill Tonelli wrote in August. And while the FBI had Sheeran on its original longlist of possible suspects for Hoffa’s murder, he was never charged. And moreover, his public statements about Hoffa’s changed wildly over his life. He first denied any involvement for decades before telling a reporter the Nixon White House contracted killers to kill Hoffa in the ‘90s while fishing for a book deal. He confessed the crimes to Brandt years later but doubts surround the confession—the FBI’s lead investigator into the Hoffa disappearance called medical malpractice attorney Brandt’s video of Sheeran’s admittance “a laughable, sad, desperate attempt to create a record.”
Gallo’s assassination and Hoffa’s disappearance shocked America. Having some portrayal of them, accurate or not, connects us to the story. There’s value in pointing out the inaccuracies, if only to paint a fuller picture for curious viewers. “That’s the thing about gangland slayings,” Tonelli writes, “When done properly, you’re not supposed to know who did them.” And one man probably isn’t behind it all. But who cares?
Bringing Sheeran’s story to life, Scorcese creates a vivid picture of post-World War II America with an underworld frame. Teamsters rallies, backroom meetings and historic hits provide exactly the juice you’d expect. It’s a true mob epic, perhaps a collective farewell from the genre’s biggest names, which alone compels viewers no matter their prior interest in mafia lore.
For its flaws—*cough* Robert De Niro’s kicking *cough*—The Irishman never suffers due to historical inaccuracy. That’s because historical accuracy isn’t what makes mafia stories entertaining. Their greatness comes from letting regular schnooks like us into an underworld we’d never otherwise have access to. They’re filled with mystery and glamor and larger than life characters.
No one really knows the full truth. But it doesn’t matter how truthful Sheeran’s accounts are. The entertainment is in the journey as he tells them.