A World War II soldier hardened by killing hires on as a truck driver during peacetime. His efficiency in following orders—at the wheel and with a gun—serves the bosses of organized crime and organized labor.

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” the soldier—a real-life guy named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro)—is a foot soldier for a Philadelphia crime family. His capo (Joe Pesci) has a brother, a mob lawyer (Ray Romano) who hooks Frank up with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whom Sheeran loyally serves as a combination bodyguard, brother and buddy. And when the mob wants Hoffa whacked, who better to tap for the job than Sheeran?

That’s the rough idea of the film, but a summary cannot convey its power and profundity. Just when you think you’re watching a film portrait of a hit man, the scope of the movie gets bigger and bigger, building incrementally to a canvas the size of the United States. Scorsese’s epic is by turns ruefully funny, chilling and laced with deep regret as Sheeran tells his story to an unseen interviewer from a wheelchair in an assisted-living facility. As with “The Godfather” films, you don’t watch “The Irishman” so much as get implicated with its characters. In one sense, the movie is Sheeran’s confession, the audience his priests and judges.

In a larger sense, “The Irishman” is not simply Sheeran’s story. It’s a history of American masculinity from 1950 to the present, a gimlet-eyed chronicle of gimlet-eyed men shaped by World War II. They became men in the company of other men and define their manhood by their place in the unit or pack. They have wives and kids, sure. But for Sheeran, the Family inevitably takes precedence over family. The almost wordless rebuke of his daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult), is as devastating as a death sentence.

There is an unsentimental Forrest Gump aspect to Sheeran’s story. He is frequently at the edges of or instrumental to historic events, from JFK’s election in 1960 to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion to famous political assassinations.

The source material is Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses,” an account of Sheeran not universally believed to be true. (The book’s title is code for contract killers whose bullets splatter walls with their victim’s blood.) Screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), the go-to writer for microclimates of mood and nuance and man, adapted the book, and does he ever deliver. As do cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, with his Old Masters lighting, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose unnerving rhythms make it impossible to look away from this 3.5-hour movie.

“The Irishman” is affecting on many levels, with the actors giving their most moving performances in years. De Niro and Pesci tread lightly, indicating emotion with a subtle dart of eye or purse of lips. Pacino brings the high volume and broad gesture, like an opera singer in the company of cat burglars.

(While I worried that the much-publicized “de-aging” visual effects used to make De Niro and Pesci mature from 30 to 60 would be intrusive, they were not. Nor were they terribly convincing. When the actors are supposed to look 30, their faces look as if someone ironed out the wrinkles via digital Botox. Still, the acting is so riveting that I didn’t care.)

Where “The Godfather” films marked the first chapter in the book on the modern mob, “The Irishman” has the last word. In the end, what do we know about this hit man? He is conscienceless, loved by no one, a tool used by men of power. He is no more feeling than a rifle or shiv. And that knowledge stabs us in the deepest recesses of our being.

If you want a more accurate account of what happened to Hoffa, read this—or this.

If you want the best movie made in a long, long time, see “The Irishman.” It opens in theaters today and will be available on Netflix on Nov. 27. No matter how large your home screen, watching it on Netflix would be like looking at a color slide of a masterpiece.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.