"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Sunday, July 24, 2022



Danny DeVito is quite the accomplished character actor, starring in television shows such as Taxi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and highly regarded films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Get Shorty (1995). What isn’t talked about nearly enough is his directorial output, which is not as prolific but does contain some notable efforts. In the 1980s, he directed back-to-back hits with the Hitchcockian goof Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and the pitch-black divorce satire The War of the Roses (1989). Both films demonstrated his stylistic flare behind the camera and decidedly darkly humorous worldview.
DeVito parlayed the box office clout he accrued from those two films into Hoffa (1992), an epic rise and fall historical biopic about controversial labor leader James R. Hoffa, who led the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters union and eventually ran afoul of both organized crime and the United States government, disappearing on July 30, 1975 never to be seen again.
The success of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) kicked off a golden age of historical biopics in the 1990s with the likes of JFK (1991), Bugsy (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Quiz Show (1994), and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) among many others populating cinemas during this time. Stone’s The Doors (1991) and the aforementioned JFK, however, paved the way for Hoffa to get made – that, and the machinations of the film’s producer Edward R. Pressman to put together the team of legendary actor Jack Nicholson in the titular role, getting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet to write the screenplay, and DeVito to direct.

This was going to be the latter’s magnum opus that would garner all kinds of awards and catapult him into the rarified air of the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stone. Some critics, however, bristled at the lionization of Hoffa as a hero, raising more than a few more eyebrows as the man was known for employing controversial tactics to get want he wanted. Hoffa failed to make back it’s $40+ million (which reportedly rose to close to $50 million) budget, received mixed reviews and picked up a few, scattered award nominations. What happened?
The film begins at the end of Hoffa’s (Nicholson) life – the last day he was seen alive with the rise and fall of his career seen through the flashback reminisces of Robert Ciaro (DeVito), a long-time friend and an amalgamation of several real-life associates. We see how the two men met, while Ciaro is on the road making a delivery and Hoffa pitches him a membership to the Teamsters, then a fledgling organization. At the time, truck drivers were overworked and underpaid. Hoffa shows up to the loading docks one-day spouting Mamet’s profane dialogue, telling the workers to go on strike, which starts a massive brawl. In doing so, he also costs Ciaro his job and later that night he ambushes Hoffa only to be held at gunpoint by one of his associates, Billy Flynn (Robert Prosky). “Life’s a negotiation. It’s all give and take,” Hoffa tells Ciaro as he apologizes and explains him motives.
We see Hoffa’s early, botched strong arm tactics, such as firebombing a local business that results in the death of Flynn. We see Hoffa mixing it up, yelling at scab drivers crossing picket lines, getting into scuffles not just with the cops but also the mafia. The strike is cutting into their profits and Hoffa cuts a deal with them, which not only aids in his rise to leadership of the Teamsters, but also, ultimately, led to his downfall. The film shows early on how Hoffa wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, helping a trucker change his tire while he pitches membership to the Teamsters, natch, and getting bloody while fighting in the strikes.

At times, David Mamet’s Midwest tough guy dialogue feels like it could have come from one of fellow Chicago native Michael Mann’s films but it has his distinctive cadence in such gems as “Because I’m sitting out here to meet with a fella,” or “What’s out the car is my guy. What’s in here is you watching the phone.” Another memorable bit of dialogue: “Are we talking words, here, we usin’ words? That’s what we’re doin’.” The cast, in particular Nicholson and DeVito nail the sharp, clipped style of Mamet’s dialogue.
Unlike the cast of The Irishman (2019), Nicholson, et al were cast at just the right time in their lives to play younger and older versions of their characters credibly. Nicholson does an excellent job delivering several of Hoffa’s fiery speeches. He fully commits to the role compared to Al Pacino’s take on the man in The Irishman where the legendary actor seems to be playing himself rather than the man. Nicholson certainly captures the bluster and swagger of Hoffa, a man with charisma and confidence to spare. One of the joys of his performance is watching him spout so much of Mamet’s dialogue – no easy feat – and he does it while adopting the Teamster’s distinctive tone and way of speaking. Some of his best scenes are the ones where he squares off against Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) as he reduces their conflict to the working man versus the rich elite. Nicholson does get a few reflective moments in the scenes on his last day seen alive as he and Ciaro reflect on their friendship over the years.
Nicholson and DeVito are surrounded by a hell of a supporting cast with Anderson’s uncanny take on Kennedy, nailing his distinctive accent. J.T. Walsh shows up as one of Hoffa’s close associates who is initially loyal until he gets a taste of power and turns his back on his mentor at a crucial moment. A young John C. Reilly shows up as another one of Hoffa’s associates who worships him early on but eventually betrays him by testifying against him during the trial for labor racketeering. Armand Assante also pops up as the mob boss that Hoffa makes a deal with to gain more power within the Teamsters. The veteran actor wisely downplays his performance next to Nicholson’s acting pyrotechnics. He doesn’t need to chew the scenery as his mere presence exudes power and authority. His performance is a sobering reminder of how much his presence is missed films such as this and Sidney Lumet’s Q & A (1990). There are also small parts for Bruno Kirby and Frank Whaley, who was on quite the run at the time with pivotal roles in The Doors, JFK and Hoffa.

The film is ambitious in its scale and scope as evident in the scene where Hoffa leads a strike that turns into a massive brawl involving hundreds of people. DeVito captures the chaos masterfully as trucks are overturned, people are viciously beaten and even a mother is separated from her child all the while the corporate bigwigs can be seen watching safely from their lofty vantage point. It’s a tough, brutal sequence that is unflinching in its depiction of ugly violence. The epic look and feel of Hoffa is due in large part to his direction with the help of legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum as he digs deep into his stylistic bag of tricks including crane shots, split diopter lens, sweeping 360-degree camera moves, God’s eye overhead shots, point-of-view shots, and masterful framing of shots and scenes via 2:35.1 aspect ratio that rival the likes of Spielberg and Stone at the time.
Joe Isgro was a top record promoter making a reported $10 million a year but in 1989 a grand jury indicted him on 51 counts of payola and drug trafficking. The charges were dismissed a year later but the damage to his reputation had been done and he decided to pivot into the film business. Just before this legal mess he had been approached by Frank Ragano, former Hoffa attorney, and Brett O’Brien, son of Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s adopted son. The former claimed he had obtained the film rights from the Hoffa estate, however, not long after Isgro signed a letter of agreement to do the film, O’Brien told him that they didn’t have the rights and their option had expired. Isgro told O’Brien the deal was off and made a new one with another production company for the rights to Chuckie’s story, which was used as the basis for the screenplay written by Robin Moore, who had authored The French Connection, and interviewed several members of the Teamsters union about Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975.
Isgro approached film producer Edward R. Pressman with Moore’s script hoping that Pressman could convince Oliver Stone to direct. Pressman liked what he read and optioned the script as well as the tapes and transcripts of Moore’s interviews. He found the script “very expositional, not fully formed as a movie but there was the raw material for one.” Caldecot Chubb, then Vice President of Pressman’s production company, pitched Hoffa to 20th Century Fox production executive Michael London in August 1989. He recalled telling London, “In America, everyone thinks they know Hoffa. They think he was a gangster, period. But he was a labor leader, a guy with courage and heroism, a guy who stood up for his men.” An hour and half after their meeting concluded, London called Chubb and told him that if he could get David Mamet to write the script they would finance the film.

Pressman had met Mamet in 1985 and called him, pitching the idea of Hoffa as King Lear. In October 1989, Mamet met with Pressman, Chubb and Joe Roth, then President of Fox. Pressman remembers Mamet telling them that his father had been a labor lawyer and he understood that world. His conditions were that they could give him and all their research material and he would give them back a finished script. He was paid in the neighborhood of one million dollars and put two other projects on hold while he spent several months writing the script.
The studio loved what Mamet wrote and told Pressman to hire a top director. His first choice was Barry Levinson but when he met with Mamet about the script in 1990, the men did not see eye to eye on the vision for the film and the director passed on the project. Pressman reportedly met with Stone and John McTiernan but they weren’t seriously considered for the film. Around this time, Danny DeVito was having lunch with Roth who was telling him about the projects they were working on and when the former heard about Hoffa he immediately wanted to do it. He met with Pressman in April 1990 and presented his vision of the film. The producer said, “It was clear to me Danny was articulate and ambitious and every bit as prepared as the best filmmakers I’d worked with.” DeVito was hired.
To play Hoffa, both Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were considered until someone suggested Jack Nicholson. He read the script in the summer of 1990 after making The Two Jakes (1990) and agreed to do it but principal photography had to be delayed for six months while he filmed Man Trouble (1992) for Bob Rafelson. His salary increased the film’s budget dramatically to over $40 million and Roth told Pressman in the fall of 1991 that Fox would only pay for $37 million of it. Pressman sold the cable rights in France for $5 million and convinced DeVito to work for union scale, saving an additional $7 million in exchange for a share of the film’s box office receipts.

Hoffa shot for 85 days, starting in February 1992 in Pittsburgh before moving on to Detroit, then Los Angeles with the final two weeks in Chicago in June on an initial budget of $42 million that eventually came in just under $50 million.
Hoffa received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Hoffa shows DeVito as a genuine filmmaker. Here is a movie that finds the right look and tone for its material. Not many directors would have been confident enough to simply show us Jimmy Hoffa instead of telling us all about him.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. Nicholson has altered his looks, voice and speech to evoke Hoffa, but the performance is composed less of superficial tricks than of the actor's crafty intelligence and conviction. The performance is spookily compelling without being sympathetic for a minute." The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan wrote, "All the audience is left with are snapshots of repetitive tough-guy behavior, a scenario that is too limited to hold anyone’s interest for a 2-hour-and-20-minute length."
Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "D" rating and wrote, "When an actor as great as Nicholson gives a performance this monotonous, it raises the question, Why make a movie about Jimmy Hoffa in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is that it wasn’t so much Hoffa’s life as his lurid, headline-making death that hooked a major studio into backing this project. The result is somehow perversely appropriate: a massive Hollywood biopic about a man who never quite seems there." In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "The biggest mistake is DeVito's direction. He fills every moment with soaring, weighty music and spectacle-happy cinematography. Like a kid clutching power candy, he can't let go." While doing press for the film, DeVito made no apologies for his positive take on Hoffa: “He put bread on the table of the working man. That to me is a hero.”
DeVito does lay it on a bit thick at times, such as the scene where hundreds of trucks park by the side of the road as drivers show their support for Hoffa as he and Ciaro are driven to prison with David Newman’s score swelling dramatically. Hoffa’s home life is also never seen with his wife Josephine (Natalia Nogulich) trotted out for a few moments but we get no insight into their dynamic. If the film’s portrayal of Hoffa has fault it’s that we don’t get an understanding of what motivated the man. When we meet him, he is fully-formed. He is confident of his convictions. How did he get that way? What made him such a staunch defender of the working man? Why was he so power hungry? We never know for certain and maybe no one did but it is a lack of depth in an otherwise compelling portrait of the man. For all the hero worship of Hoffa, DeVito does try to show the ramifications of the man’s actions such as him ignoring the Teamsters leadership’s orders to back off and starting a massive brawl with the scabs and cops that results in the death of several of his fellow members. There’s also the scene where he uses intimidation tactics to kill a newspaper story that will portray him in a negative light thereby damaging his chances of being elected President of the Teamsters.

Among the gold rush boom of historical biopics in the ‘90s Hoffa has mostly become forgotten thanks to its lackluster box office and mixed critical reaction. By the time Stone made Nixon (1995), large scale, star-studded historical films were no longer en vogue and by the end of the decade less and less of these films were being made with notable exceptions such as Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), but despite stellar reviews it also underperformed at the box office. Hoffa has enjoyed some renewed interest thanks to The Irishman, which features the labor leader prominently. While he is not the central character his presence casts a long shadow over the film and is nowhere near as interestingly depicted as in DeVito’s film. Perhaps there is a more definitive take on the man? A limited series that could go into more detail? In the meantime, we have this lavishly staged, well-acted look at the man who had a profound effect on labor unions and the working class.
Freedman, Samuel G. “The Captain of the Hoffa Team.” The New York Times. September 13, 1992.
Goldstein, Patrick. “A Labor-Intensive Hoffa.” Los Angeles Times. August 30, 1992.
Willistein, Paul. “DeVito’s Hoffa Salutes Top Teamster Working Class Hero.” The Morning Call. December 25, 1992.