Film Ramblings: HOFFA(1992) Dig Him Up for Another Look

I love Danny DeVito’s Hoffa. Whatever liberties the filmmakers might have taken with the man’s life will not cause an engine to seize or bust a couple of axles on an interstate haul, so we won’t worry over such details in this essay. Your opinions of modern day labor unions shouldn’t determine the artistic merits of this film. In most cases, I try not to let my political beliefs dictate what films I go to see, or not. As someone who rolls right, I would have motor oil on the brain if I thought that most films or artists that Hollywood produces would trumpet my core beliefs. Especially nowadays.

For what it’s worth, I think when Jimmy Hoffa became a prominent member of the Teamsters, unions were needed in America to protect the interests of the working man. The fact that he made deals with organized crime was irrelevant in the polarizing boss’s mind. Hoffa seemed to be a man that would have formed alliances with marauding Visigoths if it would have ensured the upper hand–or tire iron–to the unions over greedy management.

Big business is dirty business and, at the end of the work day, all those heavy hitters are about as civil as wild boars gnashing at each other in fields of slop. Affable men need not apply. If you’re a nice guy, go join the circus or collect donations for the Salvation Army. If you want to fight for the working stiff, you may have to crack a few skulls or risk getting your jaw caved in by management’s hired goons. DeVito shows dilapidated loading docks and cold factory yards almost as 20th Century reenactments of the Battle of Hastings, replacing steel helmets and swords with billy clubs and wool caps.

At its center, David Mamet’s screenplay is about two men who become friends, bonded by a common belief. Jimmy Hoffa, played by Jack Nicholson, coaxes himself into Bobby Ciaro’s(Danny DeVito) truck one winter’s night in Detroit. I love the cadence of the dialogue and the typically raw Mamet language in Hoffa. The characters have a world weary wisdom that one earns from building calluses on weathered hands. There are no dainty paper cuts in the world of Hoffa. Dictation is more often recited in a dark alleyway than in a comfortable office on a stenographer’s machine. You learned what you knew because it walked up to you and knocked you on your ass. You got up off the concrete, drank strong coffee and went back to work. Your complaint department was most likely a suffering coworker or a bartender with a kind ear.

Hoffa is a man’s movie. There is nary a woman character in the whole flick. There’s a few hookers, some show girls, a secretary or two, but nothing substantial. This is not a movie the Hollywood feminists would be praising. We briefly meet Hoffa’s wife in a few scenes. Nicholson–in a really nuanced performance–shows the audience that he loves the broad. However, there are no details that hint at any romance. It is almost as if he acquired his wife for paying his union dues.

Nicholson is very believable as this iteration of Hoffa. He looks and acts like a driven and corrupt union official from decades ago. One would guess there isn’t much time for sit-ups and push-ups when you are up all night locking horns with stingy management, or making back alley deals with shady mobsters. It is tough to imagine Hoffa picking at a plate of steamed vegetables after doing battle with Robert Kennedy at a congressional hearing. Boiled meat and potatoes seems like the diet of the prosecuted. One of the standout scenes in the movie shows Jimmy Hoffa and Kennedy squaring off in Kennedy’s office. Hoffa is hilariously blunt, profane and insulting to the entire Kennedy clan in the heated exchange. Perhaps it mirrors the way many Americans feel about politicians today? If you aren’t sick to death of politics, one could make a case for possible similarities in attitude and demeanor to the man in the White House today. I just dig the flick, man. That ain’t fake news.

Nicholson is probably a little less “Jack” in this than most of his other roles during this time period. His Jimmy Hoffa is a little more finely tuned than his Joker or Colonel Jessup. Not to despair, we do get to witness a couple of entertaining outbursts of rage. One comes against Frank Fitzsimmons, played by the late, great JT Walsh. My mother screamed at me like that a few times when I was a kid. There was this one time when I told my fifth grade art teacher what I thought of her harsh critique of my dinosaur painting. I didn’t believe she had the nerve to call my mother. I quickly learned she did, indeed, have the gumption to pick up the phone. When I got home from school, Tarmac got his little asphalt spanked that day.

The second fit of hysterics comes when Hoffa forcefully informs his mob buddy, played by a very good Armand Assante, that he will do whatever he needs to do in taking back what he lost. We all have moments like this in our lives, for better or worse. Assante has some really great hand gestures in this one. I get a kick out of just watching his body language in the pivotal deer hunting scene.

DeVito, one of my favorite talents out there, is perfectly fine as Bobby Ciaro. It might be a bit hard to picture the pint sized star as a tough guy, manhandling government agents in an office and pulling a gun on a nightclub owner with mob connections. However, we have all witnessed much stranger stuff go down in real life. That fact probably leaves my nominal disbelief up the creek without a paddle. And I do remember cuts and bruises drawn on my person by much smaller dudes. The playground was sometimes an unforgiving place.

Robert Prosky is entertaining in the small but important role of Billy Flynn. His character is the linchpin for Hoffa and Ciaro’s friendship. Listening to DeVito drunkenly recount Flynn’s fate in a bar is one of the film’s best scenes. Mamet’s sparkling, tough guy dialogue is on full display. It illustrates how purposefully subtle inaccuracies in reporting help to build legend. It may remind some of listening to their uncle talk about his days in the service. These stories usually had to wait until after your mother had gone to bed and the bottle of liquor was three quarters gone.

DeVito, the director, does a great job with Hoffa. He astonishes the audience with artistic flourishes one might not expect from the likable and loathsome Frank Reynolds. I especially loved the infinite reflection in the spacious men’s room of a bar, always a great place for drunken poetry and macho posturing. The film, as a whole, looks fantastic. Having not been alive until 1972, I found the film’s period recreation wonderful. There are outdoor scenes that appear to be filmed in a studio, the backgrounds looking especially as if they were constructed by union workers. They give the film a surreal and old Hollywood quality that suit it well. I especially loved the petite hunting cabins that were nestled in a forest full of slumbering trees and decaying leaves.

Though it has been twenty five years, I remember Hoffa to be a commercial flop that garnered mixed reviews. I believe I have that memory correct. Whatever one’s thoughts on the finished product, DeVito deserves credit for making such an ambitious film about one of the more polarizing people in twentieth century America. Regardless of what you think of Hoffa the man, his life made for an interesting story.






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