After its debut at the New York Film Festival, critics are already calling The Irishman a masterful mob movie, and a stunning return to form for director Martin Scorsese. At nearly three-and-a-half-hours, there’s a lot to unpack there—specifically with how the film handles real life events that to this day remain unsolved.
The Irishman is based on investigator Charles Brandt’s 2003 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, which details the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played be Robert De Niro in the film), and his involvement with the Bufalino crime family. The memoir is loaded with alleged hits, historical nuggets, and confessions that fill The Irishman’s three-and-a-half-hour runtime. But in the film, Scorsese leaves one small blink-and-you’ll miss it reference to one of the wildest implications in I Heard You Paint Houses—that the mafia was involved with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
At one point in The Irishman, crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, says, “If they can knock off a president, they can knock off the president of a union.”
This ties into some of the most famous conspiracy theories that the mafia was behind the JFK assassination. In I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran claims that he delivered three rifles to Dallas in the days leading up to the president’s assassination—which turned out to be the same kind of guns used in the shooting. This specific scene does not appear in Scorsese’s film adaptation. In the book, Brandt speculates that the motive was fairly straightforward: JFK’s brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was in a full-on legal attack against organized crime at the time.
“The Genovese family’s hands-on involvement makes perfect sense,” wrote Brandt in a new conclusion to the memoir, published in 2008. “It had a seething personal motive. It had something operatic to prove. It was a Genovese made man from East Harlem, Joseph Valachi, who, betraying the deepest Mafia secrets, had just humiliated the Genovese in televised hearings.”
If you really want to put your conspiracy hat on, take a look at a Kennedy-related document made public in 1997—which detailed a surprising team-up between the CIA and the mob. According to a 1975 document, the CIA offered $150,000 to the mafia to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro (and the mob, apparently, said they’d do it for free, since it would preserve the casinos they ran in the foreign country). The info was part of a briefing for Attorney General Kennedy—who was apparently unhappy with the whole thing, because it undermined his fight against the mafia at the time. The hit on Castro was unsuccessful—which led some conspiracy theorists to say that it’s what led the mob to attack the Kennedy family.
“Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed,” wrote Evan Thomas in a biography about RFK. “That Robert Kennedy’s attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had blown back, as the intelligence folks say…Bobby thought that he’d be killed, not his brother and now he has this daunting, horrible realization, or fear that all of his attempts to get the mob and to get Castro have in some terrible way blown up and come back to haunt his family and resulted in the death of the president, his brother.”
Ultimately, Scorsese chose to leave Sheeran’s account of the gun delivery out of The Irishman—which was something that came up during a NYFF press conference following a screening of the film.
“The decision had to be made, very clear, before I read the book: Are we going to get into what could be considered conspiracy theories?” Scorsese said. “What we wanted to do was [explore] the nature of who we are as human beings, the love, the betrayal, the guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness, all of this. Everything else that plays out can be considered—and I’m not denigrating Charles Brandt’s book or what Frank Sheeran may have said, because this is not Frank Sheeran in the film, this is a character that we all created—may be considered arguably to be contested. I didn’t want to muddy up the emotion and the power of what he was going through.”
Scorcese continued: “So you want to [say you] delivered guns and this and that? It may be true, I don’t know… But Charles Brandt, he knows all this stuff and I believe he’s working on another project that is going to get into that deeper. Certainly, it’s that old story: If it walks like a duck, and it quacks, it might be a duck. … But what happens if we know the truth of that time? Will our lives change now? What does it do to us as human beings, what does it say to us about society now, about being above the law and being reckless.”
Who knows—maybe all the buzz around The Irishman will lead to the uncovering of more JFK-related documents. Or maybe Brandt’s further work could bring us something new. Netflix’s Scott Stuber, for the record, says, “We follow the book’s narrative, but no one is purporting this is the actual truth.” For now, you can count on De Niro, at least, starting to question the history books.
“We don’t know,” De Niro told Variety about Sheeran’s JFK account. “I never felt that the mob had anything to do with the Kennedy assassination, but now, in hindsight, I start thinking maybe there is something more to it.”