One of the most criticized aspects of Martin Scorese’s critically acclaimed, three and a half hour epic The Irishman is its lack of a female character with a significant speaking role. In an otherwise rapturous review, for example, Matt Zoller Seitz notes that “Scorsese’s two greatest Mafia pictures, carve out substantial space for wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters, and feature indelible lead performances by actresses (respectively, Lorraine Bracco in “GoodFellas” and Sharon Stone in “Casino”) that energize and transform the material, exploding the hero’s lives like the bombs that roast so many vintage cars in “The Irishman.” In the Irishman, by contrast, the most memorable female character, Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, barely has any lines at all. Her main attribute is her silence.
I would argue that Peggy Sheeran’s silence is probably The Irishman’s greatest strength.
For those who are not familiar with the ultimate fate of Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt, mob-connected President of the United Brotherhoods of Teamsters, it’s a surprisingly representative historical event. Hoffa, who dominated the corrupt world of American organized labor in the 1950s and 1960s, had plenty of powerful enemies. From the Kennedy family, who resented his support of Richard Nixon, to various members of the Philadelphia mob, who preferred his easily managed successor Frank Fitzsimmons, there were dozens of people who not only wanted Hoffa dead, but who were perfectly capable of having him killed. On July 30, 1975, in Bloomfield, Michigan, Jimmy Hoffa simply disappeared. The mystery has never been solved.
We live in an empire of denial. Every time we open the newspaper, or tune into social media, we witness atrocities that we are actively encouraged by a power-worshiping corporate media not to understand. At times, we come across an event like the “suicide” of Jeffrey Epstein, where the corrupt, gangster like nature of our society becomes so obvious that the official explanation not only fails to convince, but feels absurd. After a period of time, most Americans join one of two camps. On one hand, most of us convince ourselves that the event did in fact happen the way the corporate media insists it happened. Eventually we just forget about it. A small minority of us, on the other hand, in the absence of any real investigation by a corporate media, take to conspiracy theories. What’s worse? Outlandish narratives that at the very least allow us to express our belief that “something is wrong” or the corporate media’s insistence that “there’s nothing to see here. All is well.”
Early in The Irishman, Frank Sheeran, a contract killer for the Philadelphia mob who learned his trade murdering German prisoners of war during the Second World War, comes home to find Peggy, his 7 year old daughter, in obvious distress. She had knocked over a shelf in the local grocery store, and gotten roughed up by the owner. Sheeran is rightfully outraged, but winds up making things 1000 times worse. Instead of simply reassuring Peggy that she did nothing wrong, and maybe taking his business elsewhere, he drags her along with him to the grocery store where he not only confronts the owner, but beats him to within an inch of his life. At that moment, watching her father break the store owner’s hand, Peggy realizes that there is something very, very wrong. She has no way of knowing that her father is a serial killer for pay. At seven-years-old, she hasn’t yet acquired the language she needs to express her horror over the violence that he made her witness against her will, but she does make a decision. She will rebel against the evil she knows exists, but can’t find the words to explain. She will say nothing.
As the Irishman proceeds, and we follow not only Sheeran’s bloodstained career, but his growing relationship with Jimmy Hoffa, who Peggy likes, we begin to notice that the language of organized crime, like the language of the corporate media, is designed, not to reveal, but to conceal the truth. Nobody comes out and says, for example, “kill Mr. X.” Instead, a mob boss like Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino will say something like “it is what it is. Get that thing done.” When Sheeran takes on a job for Hoffa, to shut down a taxi company that’s chosen to deal with a union that competes with the Teamsters, Sheeran decides to use explosives to destroy their fleet of cars. But he never refers to “explosives.” The term is “candy.” Scorsese’s gift for the visual serves his narrative thrust well. After awhile, we realize that what his characters are talking about has nothing to do with what we are looking at on the screen, that they are speaking in code, in hieroglyphics, that in the world of organized crime, nothing is quite so corrupt as language.
That Frank Sheeran murdered Jimmy Hoffa on the orders of Russell Bufalino is certainly a plausible explanation for Hoffa’s disappearance, but it’s almost impossible that we’ll ever get any kind of independent confirmation. Even if it all went down exactly how Sheeran, who when he made his confession was well into his 80s and obviously senile, says it did, the organized crime bosses he worked for were too smart to leave receipts lying around. Similarly, whether or not a satanic cabal of ruling class pedophiles had Jeffery Epstein murdered in prison to cover up their own crimes — and come on they obvious did — is not something historians will ever be able to write about with any authority. The truth is gone, forever. Did Allen Dulles and the CIA have John F. Kennedy murdered? Yeah of course they did. Did Army Intelligence arrange the hit on Martin Luther King? Probably. But like organized crime bosses, the American ruling class doesn’t have a habit of documenting their atrocities for future historians. Indeed, the most astounding thing about Watergate wasn’t the fact that Nixon had parts of the tapes erased, but that he made the tapes at all.
So we the people are never going to find out the truth about the monsters who rule us. Nevertheless, like Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, we do have a choice. We can choose not to speak in the corrupt language of the murderers like Frank Sheeran and Russell Buffalino. When Peggy, now grown to adulthood and played by Anna Paquin, realizes that her father almost certainly, Judas like, assassinated the man who had long employed him as a bodyguard and come to trust him, she cuts him off completely. She has no power to avenge Hoffa’s death. She can’t go to the police or the media. She can’t even get the evidence of what she genuinely believes happen, but she can chose to say nothing, to spend the rest of her life as if her father never existed. In the end, her passive resistance hurts her father more than sending him to jail. By not acknowledging him, she flips the script on a man far too powerful, and violent, to openly confront. She breaks his spirit as surely as he had broken the grocer’s hand so many years before.