Danny DeVito’s Hoffa is a rare Hollywood left turn

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman may grieve for the controversial Teamsters president who disappeared in 1975 – but it’s DeVito’s 1992 biopic starring Jack Nicholson that best encapsulates the union champion’s values. (Sylvester Stallone in F.I.S.T., not so much.)

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Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa (1992)

Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa (1992)

“American movies present the ideals of the middle classes. But it is even more correct to say that American movies represent the ideals which the middle classes would like to have.”

So wrote Amos Vogel in 1947, the year he founded Cinema 16 in New York City in order to screen esoteric and underground films with the express purpose of changing the society he saw around him. At the same time in Detroit, another man had started arguing with the middle classes more directly, after being voted in as president of the Teamsters union Local 299 branch. From there, James Riddle Hoffa became the effective leader of the drivers’ union’s organised efforts to confront employers and bosses across Michigan, a path that eventually took him to the office of national Teamsters president.

In 1975, having worn out the patience of his associates in the Mafia, Jimmy Hoffa mysteriously vanished forever into the land of infamy and punchline. If American movies were less comfortable presenting middle-class ideals – if Hollywood was really comfortable with the left at all – then fictionalised Jimmy Hoffas might have been seen in US films more often since then, a relevant lesson from history about the bargains involved when organised labour flexes its muscles and the forces that are summoned up. Instead, his big-screen appearances have arrived on roughly the same schedule as a comet.

Hoffa (1992)

Hoffa (1992)

Twenty-seven years ago, the stars aligned to give Jimmy his only full-scale biopic treatment, in an uncommon gesture of grand leftist cinema. Hoffa, directed by Danny DeVito and funded by 20th Century Fox (ie. by noted non-friend of unions Rupert Murdoch), had its title character state his game plan for the workers out loud: the union should lead its members into the middle classes and do whatever it takes to stay there.

Played by Jack Nicholson as a growling bear of a man, Jimmy rises from union agitator to strike leader to mortal enemy of Robert Kennedy, and along the way becomes increasingly close to the Mafia, represented by a saturnine Armand Assante. DeVito himself plays Jimmy’s fictional lieutenant Bobby Ciaro, recruited from a loading dock in 1935 and inseparable from his boss ever since.

Hoffa was released a year after Oliver Stone’s JFK and within weeks of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a trio of “would-be interventions” into the cultural chat, per Sight & Sound at the time. But even in that high-oxygen environment, Hoffa stands apart for its dark flamboyance and the stylised speech patterns of David Mamet’s script, turning the characters into bards of machismo. And DeVito adjusts his usual directorial style of choreographed black comedy and physical farce, giving it a statelier form as elegiac and mournful as David Newman’s score.

Danny DeVito on the set of Hoffa (1992)

Danny DeVito on the set of Hoffa (1992)

Film criticism is currently keen on films’ content and often silent about their form, but Hoffa beams in from 1992 with an urgent question: what form would an authentic leftist film take? What camera business and structure and style would make a film inherently, intrinsically, of the left?

DeVito has a couple of answers, both now unfashionable. For starters, Hoffa depicts crises of principle, not crises of identity. The current swing against the idea of common cultural soil for everyone, and towards internal sources of individual identity, has had knock-on effects across the landscape – and in mainstream cinema has shunted narratives away from characters seeking collective action and towards characters discovering that they were individually special all along. We have a cinema of origin stories and chosen ones, finding that everything they thought was true was a lie, that their birth-parents were gods, that they were the doppelgängers all along, that their children will save the future. Compulsory self-discovery spiced with endless irony. Pulp Gnosticism, Excelsior.

No amount of diverse casting can pull this stuff over to the left of centre. Defining characters by a personal rather than collective identity – telling individual autobiography at all, for that matter – is solidly compatible not just with capitalism, but with neo-liberalism. It’s also conveniently compatible with the digital punch-ups of superheroes. “It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice, without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities,” wrote academic David Harvey – back in 2005, the year Marvel regained the film rights to Iron Man from New Line Cinema and plotted a course into Marvel-ous metaphors of individual potency.

This issue is still tying critical discourse in knots a decade and a half later. When the Washington Post critic fretted that 2019’s Captain Marvel felt like “a kind of trap for left-leaning moviegoers,” it was a basic category error, since Captain Marvel is not even pretending to be leftist at all. Hoffa, a film of collective principles compromised, knows better.

Hoffa (1992)

Hoffa (1992)

The second phase of DeVito’s rescue mission is to stop being obsessed with documentary realism – in fact to give strict realism the boot. Alongside the film’s plot, which explicitly shows the past being replayed in flexible and fluid ways, this most serious and concerned of movies plays supple visual games from start to finish. A raft of demonstrative in-camera physical effects accompanies the mood swings of Jimmy Hoffa, along with dissolves from genuine exteriors to obvious studio sets, back projections, suspiciously large close-ups of suspiciously large props, and a prison building sat on a distant horizon as if it were the jail of Oz.

DeVito concocts a great leftist visual, when a huge curtain closes on the spectacle of a violent workers’ riot. The suit-and-tied bosses turn stoically away, as their velvet drapes shut out cops cracking workers’ skulls and the Molotov cocktails flying. But DeVito built a fake observation deck with an invented perspective five stories off the ground to get it done.

And the film’s main visual code is to have Bobby Ciaro observe Jimmy Hoffa, to constantly be watching, often in the intimacy created by a split dioptre lens, foreground and background yoked together. Bobby watches Jimmy recruit unhappy truck drivers, negotiate with the mob, console grieving widows. On Jimmy’s last day Bobby watches over his boss as protectively as a mother bird, and completely fails to keep Jimmy alive. All a fair distance from realism – from the direct depiction of working-class struggle in its actual detail, the education of audiences by straight moral instruction, which has never been the only possible language of radical cinema but has become the most acceptable one. Romanticism, poetics, surrealism, modernity, not to mention flamboyance, can be just as truthful.

Hoffa (1992)

Hoffa (1992)

The genre of tragedy is truthful too. Hoffa is framed as one of those, so by default it ends up noticing the 200-year failure of the left to achieve its long-term goals. Jimmy is killed by a mob assassin who has spent half the film worming his way into Bobby’s good books as an upstanding member of the Teamsters, and Bobby’s misjudgement dooms Jimmy (who dies while improbably reading Robert Kennedy’s book about him The Enemy Within, proving that DeVito did not give up on black humour completely).

~

To see where Hollywood, and probably the middle classes, might prefer the blame to lay, there’s an earlier film that plants it in a more traditional location. Jimmy Hoffa inhabits every frame of Norman Jewison’s 1978 film F.I.S.T., but coming only three years after Jimmy’s disappearance, the film is reticent and coy.

Sylvester Stallone as ‘Johnny Kovak’ in F.I.S.T. (1978)

Sylvester Stallone as ‘Johnny Kovak’ in F.I.S.T. (1978)

The names have been changed to protect the guilty: Sylvester Stallone is ‘Johnny Kovak’, who also rises from loading dock to union presidency before falling foul of his mob connections. Jewison, noted social activist, and his star and co-writer Stallone, noted Republican supporter straight from playing blue-collar gladiator Rocky, give their union leader a conventional arc of doomed activism, involving more time wooing his future wife than shouting at employers.

As ignoble an individual as 1970s Stallone was likely to play, ie not much, and having only reluctantly accepted the help of the Mafia in the first place, Kovak ultimately shoulders the entire blame for everything, in a meltdown of impotent rage before a Senate hearing: “I hold this hearing in contempt! I hold the lot of you in contempt! I hold myself in contempt!” The Mafia relieves him of this burden shortly afterwards.

Jimmy Hoffa is currently back on screen in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, played by Al Pacino with the needle of the theatrics meter pointing well into the red zone. The chances of this Jimmy ever holding himself in contempt seem slim; but The Irishman is not actually about Jimmy Hoffa, and shows no labour roots for Jimmy’s convictions and quirks to stem from. Scorsese and writer Steven Zaillian are more concerned with Frank Sheeran, Hoffa’s aide and (so he claims) eventual assassin, and with the Mafia structures through which Frank swims. The strongest statement of collective action here is when Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) affirms Frank’s mob status and hands over the gold ring of authority, but he’s not talking about any proletarian brotherhood.

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman (2019)

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman (2019)

Once again, however, there is a witness. Frank’s daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), first drawn to Jimmy and then increasingly tormented by the things she suspects about her father, watches from the sides of the screen before moving to the centre.

A recent and thoroughly bogus tussle over the low quantity of Paquin’s dialogue is the very model of watching a film but not seeing it, of measuring content with a microscope and remaining oblivious to form. It ignores not just the potency of that particular performer, owner of one of the great empathic faces in the actors union, but also the inherent impact of the watcher’s mounting turmoil, no different from the principle DeVito and Mamet used to root Hoffa inherently into the cinema of the left. A cinema of common ground and connections, with obligations falling equally to activists and observers. The duty to watch, to acknowledge, and to change. To choose a side.

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