It’s been a long time since a movie received all the press and promotional hype of the Netflix movie The Irishman, a movie with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
The movie is all the rage with its intrigue about the Mafia and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
My review is simple. The cast is so spectacular the actors could be singing Joy to the World for the more than three-hour-long movie and it would be good. It is, however, a trifle long. I do not mean to speak harshly of the departed, but it took less time to dispose of Hoffa’s body than it took to watch The Irishman.
Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino is the standout performance, followed by De Niro as the hitman, Frank Sheeran. Pacino’s acting was workmanlike, as befits the portrait of Teamsters chief Hoffa.
Watching the movie for me was a walk into my past in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where I was publisher of a daily newspaper. The Bufalino crime family was based in Pittston, a neighboring town that is home to the annual “Tomato Festival.” The mob connections ran deep there, and were as real as a bullet to the head.
Workers went on strike one night at the newspaper my company owned, the Times Leader, and literally the next day started delivering their own paper, The Citizens’ Voice. Today, incredibly, the small city of Wilkes-Barre still has two daily and Sunday newspapers. The unions no longer own the Citizens’ Voice. It is in private hands. The Times Leader would have gone out of business in the early years of the strike except for the deep pockets of Capital Cities Communications, my employer.
I showed up two days after the 240 employees walked out the door and I planned to help us get the paper up and running again. I expected to stay there for a week but remained for eight years before coming to Fort Worth to run the Star-Telegram, which Capital Cities owned at the time.
The strike had every element of the worst problems in labor strife: vandalism, death threats, daily violence, boycotts. Families were split and went to war against one another. We lost all of our 70,000 daily paid subscribers and all our advertisers. But, eight years later, we were once again the dominant paper in town. I accepted the job to be president, publisher and editor because in my early 30s I was not smart enough to contemplate the risks. By the way, no one else in the company wanted the job. It was too dangerous.
Along the wild ride in Wilkes-Barre, I was often approached by mobsters who wanted to “settle the strike” – their way. They expected compensation. Often, I would make a deal with them to keep them out of it. For instance, I hired them to truck our newsprint from Philadelphia to their storage facilities near Pittston.
One morning I was invited to a breakfast meeting with men who were “connected.” I was accompanied by two private bodyguards, one of whom slept each night in a hotel room adjacent to mine with the connecting door open. I was advised to have the bodyguards stay in our car, which I did.
When I entered the restaurant, I discovered it did not serve breakfast. Only a few lights were on. I was offered vague promises about how my company could “win” the strike and begin making money. We were losing $1 million a month. Somehow, I was able to convince the men that, while we appreciated their concern, we were going to go it alone.
Russell Bufalino was already in federal prison when I arrived in Pennsylvania but he was still the real deal as a crime boss. He was the Godfather and still ran the family from his jail cell.
One of our advertising salesmen often bragged to me that he was once Russell’s driver. I doubted his tale because I figured a guy who talked as much as he did would have already been dead. One day he came to my office and quit his job, saying he would be going away for good.
A month later he appeared before a grand jury and his testimony sent several people to prison. He entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, was given a new identity and was sent to Nebraska to live.
He phoned me one night years later and asked me to meet him in Kansas City for an interview; he promised new information. I flew there with a reporter and we came away with a couple of stories but nothing earth-shattering. He and I ate breakfast the next day and he asked me to get him a job at one of our newspapers. Boredom, he said, was torturing him. I declined his request, saying it would place too many people in possible harm’s way, starting with him.
He pointed out that he had a new identity. I pointed out that he was still 4 feet, 11 inches tall – a distinctly identifying feature despite a new hairstyle and nose.
One Christmas I bought a full-size pinball machine for my children through an intermediary. I wanted it delivered on Christmas morning for the element of surprise. If I went to a meeting in a warehouse on a Saturday morning, I was told, all the necessary arrangements would be made for Christmas morning delivery.
The meeting was in a windowless conference room that could have been a Hollywood set for a Mafia board meeting. The man I met with said he would handle everything but had one request. He asked that I consider removing from the paper what he called the “worst and most unfair word in the English language.”
The word? “Alleged,” he said.
I said I would look into it.
As I left, he gave me a bottle of wine for Christmas and said I puzzled him.
“You never seem nervous,” he said. “You just hang in here with this strike and keep fighting. I like your guts.”
I thanked him.
It was not a lack of fear the man was seeing. It was the callow naiveté and innocent sense of invincibility that often – too often, probably – go hand-in-hand with youth.
As I watched The Irishman, the memories and the thought that I should have been scared to death all rushed back to me.
Perhaps I found The Irishman somewhat long and tedious because I lived it, or at least a small part of it. You might say it’s a movie I’ve seen before.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org