Hoffa (1992)

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Directed by Danny DeVito

Written by David Mamet

Starring Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Armand Assante, J.T. Walsh, John C, Reilly, Frank Whaley

Tagline: The man who was willing to pay the price for power.

Trivia: Alec Baldwin narrated the trailer.

Hoffa has a lot going for it, Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance as controversial labor leader James R. Hoffa is one of his personal favorites.  Stephen H. Burum’s flamboyant cinematography and David Mamet’s trademark dialogue prevent the film from falling into mediocrity (more of a curiosity).  Hoffa offers flashy style and macho posturing, but little in the way of substance.

DeVito and Mamet went for an operatic approach, avoiding historical accuracy in favor of emotive confrontations and scenery chewing performances. Many questions go unanswered.  Why was Jimmy Hoffa so passionate about labor issues?  What made him an effective leader?  How did he justify his corruption?  What was his family life like?

Hoffa is more about personality than history, powerful men squaring off against each other for the spoils.  The fine line between brute force and the legal bindings that hold civilization together is a recurring idea.  The theme plays out in the confrontations between Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy,  their rivalry is framed as Ivy League privilege versus working class grit. A good theme, but it comes off as shallow. There was more to it. Corruption in the labor unions was a big problem and one of the causes of its downfall – so Kennedy’s crusade wasn’t all about headlines.

The film begins with Hoffa and sidekick Bobby Ciaro (DeVito), a composite character, waiting for a meeting with their underworld contact.  Both look weary, near the end of their ropes.  Then the movie jumps back to the 1930s Detroit when Hoffa earned his bones as his organizer. As his power grew so did his willingness to work with the mob.

Eventually Hoffa and his compatriots were convicted and put away, he would eventually get a pardon from President Nixon.  In a memorable sequence a convoy of truckers hold vigil as Hoffa was taken to prison, yet the sentiment feels out of synch with the rest of the film. Why were they so loyal?  By the end it’s made evident he only cared one thing – his own power.

Watching Hoffa this time, I was thinking he’s a subject ripe for reevaluation. Sylvester Stallone played a fictional version in his 1978 film F.I.S.T. as a well intentioned soul sucked up by bad influences.  Al Pacino will reportedly play Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s planned 2019 film The Irishman.  In the current political climate, Hoffa’s demagoguery is fascinating, a man who led through the power of personality and intimidation.  Today the pitfalls of giving such a man power are more real than ever.

There’s a nice verisimilitude to Hoffa, but the history comes off as sophomoric.

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