Mamet Monday: ‘Hoffa’ (1992) chronicles the striking rise of the controversial union boss (Movie review)

D

avid Mamet is known for writing con movies, and he sticks to that style even in his biographical/historical tales such as “Hoffa” (1992). Mamet’s worldview that everything is a con of some sort works perfectly for telling the life story of the man who started the Teamsters union. The film also boasts Danny DeVito’s steady direction and calm, almost sad performance as Jimmy Hoffa’s second-in-command; a classic turn by Jack Nicholson in the title role; and many other markers of prestige filmmaking.

As “Hoffa” tells it, Hoffa sees an opportunity to add one more layer – a working man’s union – into the American legal, quasi-legal and illegal framework for employer-employee relations. The government and organized crime were already players in the game at this point. Hoffa’s conviction and passion for getting this union going is infectious, and before long it’s clear this is one of those movies where we’re gonna love the bad guy.

Mamet’s carefully constructed screenplay spends most of its time on the good things about Hoffa and the Teamsters. He spends less time on the bad stuff, but the bad stuff always stands out.

Nicholson’s performance is obviously a performance. He holds his face in such a way to emphasize his neck rolls, he pitches his voice up, and he walks tall but with a shuffling gait; apparently this is all in imitation of the real Hoffa. It’s effective, especially since the subdued DeVito shares a lot of Hoffa’s scenes as Bobby Ciaro, smoothing out Nicholson’s stylized turn.

I ended up liking both of these guys even though they are bad guys, historically speaking. It’s not cut and dried, though. Mamet’s carefully constructed screenplay – which makes complex material easy to follow – spends most of its time on the good things about Hoffa and the Teamsters.

This is crisply illustrated when Hoffa and Bobby are being driven in a prison truck after being sentenced by the federal government for shunting some Teamsters fees to organized crime. Semi trucks line up along the shoulder and cheer. The truckers’ working conditions are better for being Teamsters members.

At the same time, Mamet is not shy about showing that Hoffa’s tactics are not above board. He spends less time on the bad stuff, but the bad stuff always stands out. When a company hires organized crime to fight striking workers, Hoffa makes a deal to get the crime syndicate to back off: Once the Teamsters secure a contract, they will shunt a percentage of goods over to the syndicate to be plundered.

Later, when a reporter is close to printing a piece revealing one of Hoffa’s illegal schemes (poorly described in the film), Hoffa sends a box containing human male genitalia to the reporter with a card saying “Thinking of you.” The reporter kills the story.

Still, a viewer’s final impression is that Hoffa created the Teamsters out of a belief that the working man should and could gain better wages and working conditions via collective bargaining. His deals with organized crime and his tactics for keeping the truth buried were evil means to a good end, one could argue.

One weak point of “Hoffa” is that we don’t get a good sense of why companies agree to sign contracts with the Teamsters. In one case, Hoffa and another early Teamster, Billy Flynn (Robert Prosky, going against his kindly old man persona), blow up a laundromat that won’t sign a Teamsters contract. That doesn’t explain the larger, more powerful companies though.

It has something to do with Hoffa’s strength of character and the unity of the Teamsters, for sure. But there also seem to be plenty of scabs available for hire by the big companies such as the railroad; it’s unclear if the scabs are scared into quitting or what exactly happens.

Mamet’s dialog works perfectly to tell Hoffa’s story. One of the funnier gags finds Bobby telling the story of Billy Flynn’s last words. We had already seen that Billy’s final “words” to a priest at a church hospital are pained moan. In Bobby’s telling, the words become “F*** you.”

That humor aside, “Hoffa” is not a funny movie. It’s somber, with Nicholson and DeVito showing the weight of running an enterprise that has the attention of the federal government and requires delicate relationships with organized crime. Despite that tone, the pace is brisk and compelling under the scissors of editors Lynzee Klingman and Ronald Roose.

The framing mechanism is also neat: Hoffa and Bobby are waiting in a parked car for a contact to meet them. Bobby’s flashbacks to his years with Hoffa then form the main narrative. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, this is unusually long for a Mamet film. But there’s no fat on the bones, like there is with the bloated “Untouchables.”

With Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” again bringing Oscar-nominated attention to this controversial historical figure, “Hoffa” is worth revisiting. It doesn’t dig into every nook and cranny of Jimmy Hoffa’s life. But it is a thoroughly engaging primer with a lot of food for thought about whether evil is necessary to achieve something good for the American worker.

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