This post contains some mild spoilers about the plot of The Irishman.
Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman is a towering, winding journey into the past. Not just the general past, mind you, but one man’s past — Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) — as he becomes ingratiated with the Bufalino crime family through Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and grows close to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Just knowing Pacino is playing Hoffa means there’s a good chance you know The Irishman is going to have to address the unsolved case of Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 (he was declared dead in absentia in July 1982). But what does The Irishman have to say about Hoffa’s fate? And what do we really know about Hoffa’s disappearance?
If you, like me, were born in the ’90s or after, the name “Jimmy Hoffa” might not immediately conjure a solid Midwesterner with a booming voice who was the face of the American unions in the mid-20th century. Us Millennials might know about Hoffa through the jokes associated with his disappearance — like this one from Bruce Almighty where protagonist Bruce (Jim Carrey), infused with the powers of God, conjures Hoffa’s body for personal gain — but he wasn’t some all-present figure like he was in the decades before he disappeared. The Irishman even comments on Hoffa’s rapid fade from the public consciousness when, towards the end of the movie, Frank shows a nurse a picture of Hoffa with Frank’s daughter, Peggy. Frank seemingly expects the name “Jimmy Hoffa” to elicit some big gasp of admiration; instead, the nurse, visibly in her mid-30s at best, plays along but admits she has no idea who Hoffa was. So sure, the Gen X’ers and (yes, I’m going to say it) Boomers might be rolling their eyes at this glaring generational knowledge gap but it’s worth sorting out fact from The Irishman fiction when it comes to Hoffa’s disappearance.
Thanks to an established timeline of the events, we know Hoffa did indeed go missing on July 30, 1975. Following his release from prison in 1971, Hoffa had been hellbent on resuming his role as the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He was met with opposition, including from Anthony Provenzano (portrayed in The Irishman by Stephen Graham) who was also seeking to be elected to the role. The two clashed violently and as time went on this clash plus Hoffa’s increasingly bold attempts to reclaim his power allegedly began to pose a threat to the status quo.
These events more or less play out in the same way in The Irishman. What is also true in the movie are the attempts to establish some peace between Hoffa and Provenzano, especially since both men allegedly had mutual ties to organized crime. The waters had to be calmed hence the push to have a meeting with Provenzano, Anthony Giacalone (a crime boss working out of Detroit at the time), and Hoffa. Just like in The Irishman, Hoffa was last seen at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in the Detroit suburbs, where he apparently had his last meal and made his last phone call to his wife remarking the men he was supposed to meet up with were late. Hoffa was also seen talking to two men who recognized him but they were apparently not the men who Hoffa ended up leaving the Red Fox premises with.
From here, it’s as if Hoffa disappeared into thin air. The requisite missing persons calls from his family were made and the FBI promptly stepped in to investigate on August 2. On September 2, 1975, a grand jury was called with 16 people giving testimonies that led nowhere. Provenzano and Giacalone were among the six key suspects but the trail went cold. Hoffa was declared dead seven years later and, to this day, many an educated guess has been hazarded as to what happened and where Hoffa’s body could be. However, those questions have never been answered.
This is where The Irishman fills in the gaps. Based on what we know from the investigation, the real Sheeran was never anywhere near the Detroit suburbs for the Provenzano-Hoffa peace meeting. It’s similarly unclear if Sheeran was involved at all. The movie posits that not only was Sheeran involved, but he was pushed into being the one responsible for killing Hoffa because he would be able to lure Hoffa to a secluded place based on their close personal history.
Considering The Irishman reflects on the past and the muddled nature of fact and fiction, it’s understandably a narrative decision to cleanly and naturally suggest Sheeran was one of many behind Hoffa’s disappearance makes sense. But, we should remember that Sheeran, as he functions within the movie, is a bit of an unreliable narrator as evidenced with the movie’s depiction of the murder of mobster Joe Gallo. In the movie, it’s posited that Sheeran was solely responsible for the murder of mobster Gallo but, since accounts of who killed Gallo differ greatly, it’s tough to take The Irishman at its word. The same can be said of the movie’s depiction of Hoffa’s disappearance, too.
For what it’s worth, Scorsese wasn’t as fixated on breaking down the truth of the events of Hoffa’s disappearance if his conversation with director Spike Lee is anything to go by. During a conversation with Lee on a recent episode of The Director’s Cut – A DGA Podcast, Scorsese opened up about the intersection of entertainment and history within the story and his decision to keep the focus on Sheeran and weaving into Sheeran’s own narrative an incredible event like Hoffa’s disappearance.
“I mean, Charles Brandt [author of I Heard You Paint Houses, the book The Irishman is adapted from] really knew Frank Sheeran, he was hanging around with him, interviewed him over 20 years on and off, on an off. What they said, they said; it’s in the book. […] But what we found when Bob told me the story of that character and how I saw his reaction, I realized the speculation didn’t mean anything. It meant, really, the story is about people living a life, a tough life, love, trust, betrayal, remorse, regret.
The Irishman is currently available to stream on Netflix and is showing in select theaters across the U.S. For more, read our glowing review of the movie and let us convince you to watch The Irishman in one sitting.