The Mobster and the Mediocrity

The movie begins with a long tracking shot, weaving in and out of the locale in which the story is set. The soundtrack plays out tunes appropriate to the historical setting of the story. The opening sequence comes to an end with an old man in an institution in a wheelchair. He wants to talk to you. He has a confession to make.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s latest then you know this describes the opening of The Irishman, his latest epic mob opus. The old man in this case is Frank Sheeran, a real person, playing by Robert DeNiro.

Sheeran

But if you think back several years, it might sound like the beginning of another movie. In that case, the old main the wheelchair is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. Rather than being in a nursing home in New Jersey, he’s in an insane asylum in Vienna.

Amadeus

The move, of course, is Amadeus, directed by the late great Milos Forman.

What could these two films have in common, made decades apart with settings separated by centuries and an ocean? More than you might thing (or maybe less than I might think).

Much has been written as to the historical accuracy of The Irishman. It’s based on a tell all book, where Sheeran admitted to his lawyer all the horrible things he’d done for the mob. As particularly relevant to the film, those include the murder of New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in 1972 and, most spectacularly, Jimmy Hoffa.

As this lengthy Slate article explains, all of that is pretty much bunk (one FBI agent quoted about the book upon which The Irishman is based called it “baloney, beyond belief”). Nobody involved in the investigations into the Gallo slaying and Hoffa disappearance think Sheeran did it, although he might have been tangentially involved with Hoffa. (The publisher of the original book responds here).

Amadeus isn’t the most rigorous piece of history either. There’s no evidence to support the takeaway most people have from the film (and the play upon which it was based), that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart, of course, died penniless and kind of disdained, but it was due to some kind of infection (a “severe military fever,” according to records), not murder.

What’s interesting in the Slate piece of Sheeran, and what made me think of Salieri, is his ability to escape saying specifically “I did it”:

another quick digression about something you may have noticed earlier—the weird way that Sheeran phrased his confessions to both murders. Specifically, his use of the passive voice. ‘Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range.’ ‘Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant.’

I wondered about that, too.

Near the end of the book, Brandt tries to get Sheeran to confirm, one final time, all that he confessed before.

‘Now,’ Brandt said to Sheeran, ‘you read the book. The things that are in there about Jimmy and what happened to him are things that you told me, isn’t that right?’

Frank Sheeran said, ‘That’s right.’

‘And you stand behind them?’

And he said, ‘I stand behind what’s written.’

Which means that even in his deathbed confession, Frank Sheeran never actually says the words, ‘I killed Jimmy Hoffa,’ or that he killed Joey Gallo, or anybody at all.

Let’s assume that Sheeran’s unwillingness to come right out and say “I did it” is less trying to shirk responsibility for crimes he personally committed. What if his confession is less about what he did personally, than what he was a part of? Likewise, what if Salieri’s is not about his personal guilt for murdering Mozart, but for the unprincipled role he played in the world that led to his death?

Sheeran, by all accounts, was in the mob. Even if you’re not a contract killer for the mob, if you’re in the mob, you’re in a world where violence and murder is part of the lifestyle. It’s sort of like being a football trainer – you’re not actually out there causing brain damage, but you’re part of a world where that kind of things happens all the time. Just being around that kind of milieu must take its toll psychologically. Is it so odd that someone adjacent to so much horrible shit feels guilty about it, even if he didn’t pull any triggers?

Salieri’s world, of course, was quite a bit different, but there’s no doubt the way the musical tornado that was Mozart changed it. Keeping in mind that Salieri was already the court composer and thus entrenched in a position of power makes his eventual “confession” all the more powerful. He had plenty of opportunities (so the film argues) to aid, or at least not actively hinder, his young counterpart as he spirals into debt and drink. Not only does he keep pushing him in ways that aren’t likely to help Mozart’s health, Salieri actively fucks with his career. None of this is the same as sticking a knife in his back or poisoning him (a once-popular theory), but neither is it precisely good behavior. Much like Sheeran, Salieri was an asshole in a milieu where assholes could get away with stuff.

There was more personal animosity to the Salieri/Mozart relationship than there was anything in The Irishman, of course. To the point that, at the end of the film, Salieri declares himself the patron saint of mediocrities. Sheeran at the end of The Irishman is more inward looking, guilty about a life not well spent. He’s not making bold proclamations (and, obviously, he’s not nuts).

In my legal work I deal all the time with people who confess to doing bad things, but mostly they’re doing that on their own. If they’re coming out of some particular environment it’s not usually because they’ve chosen that life. Sheeran, by contrast, chose to be a gangster. That he didn’t personally embody the worst of what that means didn’t mean he couldn’t struggle with guilt about the worst aspects of that life. Likewise, Salieri chose to be the shit he was, even if he didn’t go so far as to murder his rival.

But I also know that people confess to things they don’t do. Sometimes it’s because cops force them into it. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty personally, even if they aren’t guilty legally. The human psyche, and memory, can be an odd thing.

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