The Irishman and Post-War America

The Irishman comes out at a particularly interesting moment when we’re reassessing the history of the past century. The tendency recently has been to denigrate the boomer generation’s self-indulgence and narcissism, and look back farther to older ideologies and institutions of solidarity and collectivity as ideals: organized labor, Keynesianism, socialism, the anti-fascist effort of WW2, etc.

The Irishman complicates the nostalgic picture of post-war prosperity and its institutions. Sheeran deflates the greatest generation myth: Rather than being forged by the War, he’s emptied out by it. He’s made to kill and made to obey. He finds meaning in larger institutions that take advantage of his need for solidarity and friendship for instrumental purposes. He ultimately is made to destroy his family and friends.

In the end all the institutions — the unions, the mob, etc. — that provide meaning or a material basis for people’s lives also chew up and spit people out. No one is essential: Even the great Hoffa is dispensable. Sheeran is obviously culpable and feels attrition if not contrition for what he did, but he’s tragic as well: he’s caught up in forces far beyond his control and one feels pity for him.

The Mafia “family” portrays very vividly the strange dark side of collective forms of life. For Scorsese, the Mafia holds a kind of mirror up to society that shows it stripped of its hypocrisy. It’s ridden with violence and greed, but the people who constitute it are indifferent parts of the whole: the whole thing keeps going no matter who gets whacked. “Our thing” perpetuates itself.

We like to bemoan the rise of neoliberalism and the New Left, but it’s easy to forget the great institutions of the mid-century were actually quite alienating, corrupt, and began to fail. The individualism of the boomer generation, whether it expressed itself in spiritual seeking or the religion of entrepreneurialism, happened for a reason.

Frank at the end is left with religion, but he can’t quite make the leap. I wonder if this is the most personal part of the movie. Scorsese’s relationship with his Catholicism is complex: he embraces it at times and holds at arms length at others. Once every institution has failed where does one turn?