Right and wrong


“Let us cease from wrath and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts and each heart has its own learnings. Their right is our wrong and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any man lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end…” ~ Prince Shōtoku (574-622 AD), Seventeen Article Constitution, (page 261 in The Buddhist Tradition of India, China, and Japan; ed. William Theodore de Bary)

Movie review: The Irishman (2019)

The latest Scorsese film hit Netflix. I waited. And then waited some more. Then I, somewhat reluctantly, sat down to watch the three plus hour movie.

It’s not that I thought it would be bad. I thought it would be excellent. Scorsese films always are. And the actors! How wonderful to see Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci on the screen again in a serious drama.

It’s just that it was just another gangster/mobster film. (These aren’t the only types of films that Scorsese does, but dang, it sure feels like it sometimes.)

The movie is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses and focuses on Frank Sheeren, a hitman for the Bufalino family. An Irishman, Frank gets in close with Russell in an accidental meeting over a broken truck. Russell is high up in the Pennsylvania mob.

Frank starts out driving trucks for meat delivery but soon is trusted with more. He evolves quickly into quite the reliable thug. He is the lone Irishman in a world of Italians, but he and Russell remain close. Even in prison. Even when Russell is wheeled away for one last visit to the church before going to the hospital and then the grave.

But this isn’t just a movie about mobsters and crime families. The Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa are front and center, mixed up with the mob. Hoffa personally signs off on any loans from the union pension fund to mob projects.

Russell introduces Frank to Hoffa and the two hit it off. Best of friends. Frank is constantly trying to rein in Jimmy or advise him in ways that will prolong his life with the mob. But Hoffa is portrayed as quite the hot-head. He trusts Frank with his life. According to the narrative pushed by The Irishman, that was his mistake.

Hoffa disappeared one night in 1975 and was never heard from again. In real life, the FBI set their sights on Chuckie O’Brien, claiming that he drove Hoffa to his death. A recent book by Chuckie O’Brien’s step-son disputes this narrative (and claims that even the FBI has rejected their theory about Chuckie being behind Hoffa’s murder.)

The Irishman never explains why Chuckie was driving the car but also never implies that he was knowingly involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank was merely following orders from Russell but was clearly bothered by killing his close friend. The film shows that one of Frank’s daughters, who was always aloof with the mobsters, formed a close bond with Hoffa. When Hoffa disappeared, she rightly suspected her father and broke off all communication with him for the rest of his life.

At various times in the story, the movie displays textual updates on mobsters, indicating what happened to them later. Most died. Some were imprisoned. Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were two of the few who didn’t die a gruesome death. Instead, Russell died a natural death in prison and the implication is that Frank will die soon in his post-prison nursing home.

The point of the movie (and the book on which it is based)? Crime isn’t a lifestyle to emulate? Crime isn’t glamorous? Hoffa was killed by Frank? I am not clear. It began with Frank sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home and ended with a priest leaving his side at the nursing home. No remorse. No regret. Just a life of violence and loyalty to Russell over Jimmy. A life that is coming to a close.

Movie review: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo who? I confess I had no idea about the man in the movie’s title. I was interested in this movie because of the actors: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman. And the subject matter: The Communist witch hunt of the 1950s where people were blacklisted and their careers ruined.

I wasn’t disappointed in this movie. The acting is superb. And the storyline…well, in good Hollywood fashion, the good guys win in the end.

Dalton Trumbo was a famous movie screenwriter behind several successful movies. If the movie is to be believed, he was the most famous and highly paid screenwriter of the time. He also joined the Communist Party in 1943 and was an agitator for workers’ rights. But he wasn’t alone. He was joined by other screenwriters, producers, and directors with similar sentiments.

In 1947, they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about their Communist affiliations. They refused to answer. They were imprisoned for contempt of Congress. When they emerged at the end of their sentences, the so-called Hollywood Ten found themselves blacklisted. None were allowed to work in Hollywood.

The movie depicts how Trumbo got around this ban and ultimately helped end the blacklist some ten years or so after it started. In the intervening years, the blacklist took a toll on his family. To make ends meet, Trumbo approached a producer of B-rated movies about writing scripts for him without getting credit for the movie scripts. That way, he gets paid for work he does but skirts the blacklist. The producer was game.

To make enough money to survive at the low pay he was receiving, Trumbo had to produce an ungodly number of scripts. He became a non-stop screenwriter. Of course, this pace wasn’t sustainable. He took two tactics to solve the dilemma. He enlisted other blacklisted writers to write scripts and he commandeered his family to help with answering phone calls and delivering scripts.

The involvement of his family was anything but normal. Rather than living their lives as teenagers, his children were forced into the family business for their financial survival. The stress on the family was enormous.

The movie also touches on the stress felt by other writers, directors, and producers who were blacklisted. Some named names in front of the House committee for their own survival. Others tried to skirt the issue for as long as they could.

Trumbo wrote scripts, such as Roman Holiday, that other, non-blacklisted writers added their names to. Years later it came out that Trumbo actually wrote Roman Holiday and was eventually given the Oscar that it won in 1953.

The turning point in the movie was when Kirk Douglas shows up and asks Trumbo to rewrite a script for a movie he was acting in. That movie? Spartacus. Spartacus would go on to win awards. At the same time (according to the movie), the director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo to write the script for Exodus, which also went on to win awards.

Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger gave Trumbo screen credit for writing scripts. (Note: The breaking of the blacklist is a bit disputed. Others used blacklisted artists for movie before Spartacus and Douglas’s role in ending writers being blacklisted has been disputed.)

The movie also errs with a tidy version of history by implying that once the blacklist was broken everything went back to how it previously was. Writers went back to writing. Producers to producing. But things were not so tidy. In reality, some could never work again or work under their real names.

And to my surprise, the House Un-American Activities Committee did not disbanded until 1976. 1976. That seems incredibly late to me. How easy it is to forget the anti-Communist fear that gripped the US for much of the 20th century.