The Shocking True Story Behind Martin Scorsese’s New Netflix Thriller ‘The Irishman’

Sophie KimberleySophie Kimberley in Entertainment, Film, News
Published 09.08.19

The Shocking True Story Behind Martin Scorsese’s New Netflix Thriller ‘The Irishman’

Martin Scorsese. An undisputed Hollywood icon. A veritable god of Italian-American crime dramas. Director of such cinematic masterpieces as Mean Streets, The Aviator, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Departed. Also the voice of Sykes the pufferfish in Shark Tale (2004). What can’t this man do?

Over the years Mr. Scorsese has established himself as the go-to director when you want a film involving some sort of crime and/or Robert De Niro. So it comes as no surprise he has turned his masterful eye to the infamous true-ish story of Frank Sheeran, the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa.

Or so he claimed.


For those of you not as worryingly invested in true-crime stories as myself, here’s a summary:

The film centres around the prison confessions of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran. Interviewed by homicide prosecutor Charles Brandt for his phenomenal 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran confessed to murdering Hoffa (played by Al Pacino).

Sheeran was a seasoned World War Two veteran, who, having served for 411 days (much higher than the average of 80) became accustomed to killing others without hesitation. Brandt, who interviewed Sheeran multiples times, was convinced this was what allowed him such an easy transition from civilian to mafia life.


Brandt explained:

“I spent five years interviewing him and we were extremely close. During that period, he confessed to ’25-30 murders’ when he was working for the mob and when I would try to shift the attention away to his war campaign in Europe – where he spent 411 days in combat – he wouldn’t go there. He wouldn’t talk about it, he would yell at me.”


He was determined, however, to find out what exactly happened to Sheeran during the war.

“I had to go to the history books and follow his division’s campaign trail. Little by little, I had to break that down until he felt comfortable talking about it. He was so traumatised by those combat days, and he could more easily tell me that he killed Jimmy Hoffa than anything he did in Italy and France. He liberated Dachau, he saw some horrific things, he was in three amphibious invasions – Salerno, Anzio, Southern France – he had quite the war experience.”

So, what about Hoffa?

Hoffa’s July 30th 1975 disappearance is one of the most notorious unsolved cases in modern American history. The whereabouts of Hoffa’s body and method of his killing remain officially unconfirmed to this day. However, there have been many grisly rumours, and members of organised crime have come forward claiming they know what happened. Sheeran was one of those men (he died in 2003).


Although many of these rumours conflict, as some have said the true culprit is still alive but currently imprisoned, they all point to one pretty obvious conclusion. Considering Hoffa’s rather high profile involvement with the Bufalino crime family; it is unanimously accepted that he was killed by the mafia. We just don’t know who exactly did it for sure, and we probably never will get an official answer.

Who did it?

John Carlyle Berkery, a rare Irish contemporary of Sheeran’s who is neither dead nor incarcerated, claimed that Sheeran was, to put it bluntly, “full of shit.” Berkery headed Philadelphia’s Irish mob for 20 years, and had close connections to the mafia. He insisted that “Frank Sheeran never killed a fly.” And that “the only things he ever killed were countless jugs of red wine. You could tell how drunk he was by the color of his teeth: pink, just started; dark purple, stiff.”


John Tamm, a former Philadelphia based FBI agent who investigated and once arrested Sheeran agrees. He stated that “Frank Sheeran was a full-time criminal, but I don’t know of anybody he personally ever killed, no.”

Mafia killings are designed and carried out specifically so that they’re never actually solved, which throws into doubt the motive behind sudden bare-all confessions such as Sheeran’s. But regardless of whether or not the events in the film actually happened, you know it’s going to be fantastic. Just look at the cast list on IMDB.

Joe Pesci (yes that Joe Pesci) plays Russell Bufalino, the head of the family. The Irishman will follow the events surrounding Sheeran’s confessed involvement with Bufalino and his friend Hoffa’s eventual disappearance/demise.

Here’s Brandt’s explanation of Sheeran’s wanting to join Bufalino to begin with:

“Frank returned from the war and got involved with [him]. […] Little by little, he became a part of something that he didn’t know really existed – the Mafia world. He knew though that Russell was a gangster. One day, he said to Russell that he had seen the movie On the Waterfront and he said he’d like to get into Union work someday. Well, Jimmy Hoffa had just taken over the Teamsters Union – it was 1957 – and they were the most powerful labour union that ever existed. Certainly the most powerful union at that time.”


Hoffa wanted total control of the union, and he obtained it through disposing of his enemies. When other members of the union were making side deals, promising labour in exchange for money, Hoffa had them dealt with. And guess who he got to do it?

If you didn’t feel a shiver when that triple Academy Award Winner’s cast list popped up, you have no soul.

I won’t give away any more than I already have, which I realise is a lot. Pretty much the entire plot actually. But to be fair this did all happen 44 years ago and may not even be true. Obviously if you want even more backstory, Brandt’s book would be the ideal place to start. That or Wikipedia.

Watch The Irishman on Netflix now.