December 2, 2019

In a Land of Heroes, Gangsters and John Ford

With ‘The Irishman,’ Martin Scorsese says goodbye to a lost world — and to his greatest subject.

As I watched “The Irishman” a few weeks ago in a Manhattan movie theater I felt an ache, a kind of grief sneaking up on me, and toward the end I thought I knew why. I realized: I am watching John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn.” I am watching a great artist say goodbye to a world he knew, the world in which he’d risen, a particular kind of America. This is an artist’s farewell to his great subject. For Ford, America’s greatest movie director, it was the settlers who pushed West and the American Indians who lived there. It was his coming to terms with their suffering, and his treatment of it.

For Martin Scorsese, who’s had a similarly epic career, it was 20th century gangsters high and low, especially the Italian-American mob.

Both movies are a summing up and a kiss on the hand to a whole lost world.

Some time after I shared my thought with the great mob chronicler and screenwriter Nick Pileggi, a Scorsese collaborator. He agreed, and later in an email said the movie is the last act of “Marty’s mob quartet,” which forms “a morality tale about being a gangster.”

The first act is “Mean Streets,” in which “youthful exuberance winds up in a shooting and a fatal car crash.” Wanting to be a gangster turns out to be a nightmare. Then comes young manhood — “Goodfellas.” Then, the third act, middle age — “Casino.” In the end, the mob always screws it up. “In Casino, when the gangsters finally get to own casinos and a city, they overreach and collapse.” Finally, old age.

“‘The Irishman’ is about the end of it all. Death even comes to those who pull the trigger.” Their dreams are gone. “That’s the final wallop and why the nursing home, the wheelchairs, the semi confessional with a young priest, so powerfully evoke the end of that world.”

“The Irishman” left Nick Pileggi wistful too. “Watching DeNiro in the wheelchair made me think of him in ‘Mean Streets’ as young Johnny Boy, dancing into the bar with some girls he ‘picked up in the Village,’ the Rolling Stones crashing the juke box.”

* * *

“The Irishman” is great art and as such has stature.

But it is not, as we know, great history. It captures a world while blithely ignoring its facts. Frank Sheeran, the mobster on whose life the film is based, didn’t kill the flashy, up-and-coming gangster Joey Gallo, as he does in the film. And he surely didn’t kill Jimmy Hoffa.

Who did? There’s no reason to doubt the longtime consensus that mafia leadership OK’d the murder and a particular mobster, probably Anthony Provenzano, ordered it.

But who pulled the trigger? Over the years a lot of people have “confessed” or claimed they know. For some of the real story, and for a great American tale in itself, you want to go to Jack Goldsmith’s book, “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” which came out earlier this year.

It is some book. It is about the guy the FBI and everyone else, for decades, thought drove the union leader to his doom, and may have been involved in his killing. That man was a mobbed-up low-level union official named Chuckie O'Brien. He was Hoffa’s longtime gofer and like a second son to him. Coming under suspicion and never being exonerated ruined Chuckie’s life.

Mr. Goldsmith is a professor of law at Harvard Law School, a person of establishment respect, an Ivy League guy who was in George W. Bush’s Justice Department.

And he started his career with a secret. He was Chuckie O'Brien’s adopted son. His mother married Chuckie when he was a kid, and in his turbulent childhood Chuckie was the only solid source of love and support. “Chuckie was my third father, and my best,” Mr. Goldsmith writes.

As Jack O'Brien — as he was then — grew up, he became a good student, a reader. He got accepted at a respected college, then went on to Oxford and Yale Law. He came to understand that a connection to Chuckie wouldn’t exactly be a career enhancer. He came to see Chuckie as crude, gruff. He lived as a criminal, a man who broke the law. Which was now horrifying for Jack, who’d come to love the law and saw the value of order. So he changed his last name back to Goldsmith, his absent father’s name, and broke off relations with Chuckie. When the court where he hoped to clerk, and later the Justice Department, did security and background checks, he said he hadn’t seen or spoken to Chuckie in years. He had only contempt for the life Chuckie led. He threw him right under the bus. They let Jack in, and he rose.

Now it’s years later, the Bush era is over, and Jack Goldsmith is uncomfortable. His entire life had been that most American of things, a big class shift, a status shift: He’d started in one place, wound up in another, and felt the dislocation of it. He questioned things. He hadn’t spoken to Chuckie in years, hadn’t invited him to his wedding. He wanted to heal the breach, to make amends. He began a dialogue that produced a book about Chuckie’s life, and their relationship, and more than that.

Mr. Goldsmith rethinks not only his personal decisions but his intellectual predicates. He sees the irony in the decision of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department to launch a massive federal investigation of Hoffa. Kennedy did it because Hoffa and the Teamsters were mobbed up. What Kennedy didn’t understand was that Hoffa dealt with the mob strategically, on his terms and at arm’s length.

After Hoffa was jailed, “The wall that Hoffa had maintained between the Teamsters union and organized crime collapsed,” Mr. Goldsmith writes. They hounded Hoffa to stop the mob from taking over the union. It turned out only when he was in jail could the mob take over the union — and its pension funds.

Chuckie saw a class element in Kennedy’s targeting of the Teamsters: Justice Department guys were a bunch of privileged Ivy League punks who under the guise of enforcing the law often broke it. Mr. Goldsmith’s research reveals that, in fact, they did break the law, with indiscriminate and illegal surveillance of Hoffa and his associates.

Tantalizingly, Mr. Goldsmith tells us at the end that the FBI now finally believes it knows who murdered Hoffa. “The killer was a low level family member in 1975, someone entirely off the early investigators’ radar. His status in the Detroit family rose almost immediately after the disappearance, and he died in January 2019.”

Mr. Goldsmith doesn’t use his name. “The person has not been associated with the Hoffa murder in the past 44 years,” he said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t want to do with this guy what had been done to Chuckie.”

Fair enough. An internet search matching Mr. Goldsmith’s exact descriptors yields the name Tony Palazollo, a Detroit mob figure who died in January 2019.

Is that who did it? After all these years the FBI should open its files, say what it knows, and close this case.

Last thought. All these people, from Ford to Scorsese, from RFK to Hoffa, from gangsters and pols to warriors and prairie saints — all these vivid, varied, colorful characters, these types, these humans — it takes some kind of country to make room for them, to make them all so possible, until they say goodbye.

And a happy Thanksgiving to the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.

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