Hi everybody. In this week’s newsletter, we’re talking the new Scorsese movie and a little Superman, but let’s start with some updates.
At The Athletic
It looks like we are going to start the Baseball 100 at The Athletic in two weeks, December 17. Why? It’s because my awesome editor Kaci figured out that if we start on that day and count down the 100 greatest baseball players ever in 100 days, the series will end right on Opening Day.
Wow, 100 stories in 100 days. This series is probably the most massive undertaking I’ve ever attempted — the whole thing will end up being 200,000 or more words, that’s more than twice as long as The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. I’m writing furiously, I can tell you that.
Point being — again this week I was so busy with Baseball 100 writing that I only had time to write one piece for The Athletic. But it was a doozy: The Browns lost in Pittsburgh again. Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens thought it a good idea to wear a “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt out in public two days before the game, then made a bunch of excuses about it. Quarterback Baker Mayfield looked so panicked and out-of-his-depth in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, that I put up a Twitter poll about him. It offered discouraging views, only 4% of people view him as a future start while 30% see him as being below average and 15% more determined he just doesn’t have the stuff.
Sigh. The Browns.
Look this week for a preview of next week’s veteran’s committee Hall of Fame vote. I will find the time to write it, somehow.
— I’ll be at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee on Thursday, Dec. 12 to talk about Houdini. Come on out! Admission gets you a Broken Wand Cocktail, which sounds delicious and magical, and I’ll sign books afterward. I’ll happily inscribe something nice about Jim Gantner, if you like.
— I’ll be in Atlanta on Saturday Dec. 14 for the Mercer Authors Luncheon. Really excited about it … there will be some amazing authors there I cannot wait to meet. I mean — Thomas Mallon? Lynne Olson? How did I get this invitation? Also, I’m currently reading Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen’s book about the Atlanta Olympic bombing, which is a source for the upcoming Clint Eastwood movie “Richard Jewell.” They will be at the luncheon too.
— I won’t say any more about it, but we have two holiday PosCasts coming up over the next couple of weeks that should set new standards for PosCast lunacy.
Someday, someone is going to make an absolutely amazing movie — not a documentary but an actual movie — about the making of Martin Scorsese’s new movie The Irishman, and I am going to be first in line to see it. I’m impossibly fascinated by the story of four old friends and legends — Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci — getting together to make one more gangster movie. I want to know everything.
And I don’t care at all about Jimmy Hoffa.
That’s what I kept thinking about while watching The Irishman itself: I wish I was there watching them make this movie. I wish I was there to see these four go on what might be their last journey together, to see them each reach deep into themselves and pull out just a little more brilliance. Look:
Martin Scorsese is 77.
Robert De Niro is 76.
Al Pacino is 79.
Joe Pesci is 76.
Think of all the great movies they have made, all the unforgettable performances, all of the exchanges. The story of them, their artistry, their shared history all of that is so much more interesting to me than the story of a hit man named Frank Sheehan and the rest.
Oh, understand, I deeply admired The Irishman. It’s gorgeously made. The performances — particularly Pesci’s splendidly understated portrayal of mobster Russell Bufalino — were astonishing. There were times I literally gasped, the acting was that good. And Scorsese plays in the movie … not as an actor but by turning the camera itself into one of the film’s main characters. Mesmerizing.
So, yes, The Irishman, even if it is, as you have undoubtedly heard, very, very long.*
*“Pack a lunch,” a friend advised me before I began, and indeed it took two separate sittings to take the whole movie in. I did have lunch between.
I admired the movie but didn’t love it, and there is a specific reason why. I’ve read some of the reviews and vaguely agree with many of the points about it being overlong and feeling a bit self-indulgent and derivative and aimless. Though I don’t think it’s fair to say that The Irishman was just a remake of Goodfellas or Casino (or The Sopranos or The Godfather or Hoffa), it didn’t feel new. The breathtaking power of Goodfellas, for me, was its sweeping ambition — Scorsese made a movie that, in an explosive and singular way, explores both the allure of the mob and the inevitable doom of the mob life. You want in. You want out. It’s inescapable.
The Irishman tries to be a big story, but it didn’t feel bit. It felt like the story of a hit-man who can barely find humanity in himself. It was lovingly portrayed, yes, But it seemed to me like well-covered ground.
But that isn’t the quibble that sticks with me. What is it, then? The great film critic Roger Ebert used to talk about how some movies are so bad that they would be more interesting if you just had the actors sitting at a table talking.
The Irishman wasn’t bad or anything close to bad, but it took Ebert’s theme to a different place. De Niro is much more interesting to me than the Frank Sheehan character he played. Pacino is much more interesting to me than Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese is much more interesting to me than this story was. Even Pesci is more interesting to me than his character, Russell Bufalino, who was, by far, the most interesting character in the film.
I kept watching (and watching) and enjoying The Irishman because it gives us all one more chance to soak in Scorsese’s genius, the ability of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci to dive into characters, the irresistible way they work together to bring another time and place to life.
But I walked away unfulfilled because, in the end, I wanted more of that stuff and less of the movie itself. The Irishman felt like an empty vessel for their talents and skills. I’m waiting for the movie about the movie.
I am (I am) I am Superman
There was a much discussed story in Variety this week about the trouble studios are having making Superman relevant to modern audiences. This led to various think pieces about Superman’s lack of relevance in today’s superhero-laden time. And that led to a backlash of people wondering how studios were having such a hard time finding a relevant story to tell about an immigrant who fled a planet that blew up because of global-warming deniers, then became a journalist and a hero who fought for the American way and against a rich oligarch with plans for world domination.
All of which I find very interested. Because, as I’ve written before, I’m a Superman guy.
I’ve always been a Superman guy … and there’s a specific (and, Mike Schur will tell you, extremely boring) reason for it: Superman is unfailingly good.
That’s my connection. That’s why I have a poster of him on my wall. He’s good. He’s not mostly good. He does not struggle to be good. He’s not inconsistently good. He’s just good.
They’ve tinkered with Superman’s goodness lately because goodness is not in vogue in the movies these days. It’s not enough to be a superhero in 2019. No, superheroes need to be dark, egotistical, conflicted, troubled. I get it: We’ve become much more interested in the reluctant heroes and antiheroes and all of their twisted motivations. The recent Superman movies try to go that route; they are filled with destruction and death and unintended consequences and Superman’s own doubts about the world and himself.
And maybe that’s just how it has to be — maybe there aren’t enough people left interested in a hero whose motivations are pure, someone who is only trying to help.
But none of that works for Superman. Because, again, he is good.
There’s an old line that good people make for bad biographies. I’ve never bought it, though. I find goodness to be pure magic whether in books, in movies, in sports, on television. Goodness is the one thing that consistently makes me cry. Whether it’s the town bringing money to save George Bailey, Ellie’s scrapbook in “Up,” Brian Piccolo helping Gale Sayers recover from his injury or a thousand other examples.
Superman does not HAVE to be good. That’s part of the wonder. He has a seemingly limitless number of powers — more get added all the time, I mean, does he really need the power to reverse time? — and his only real weakness is kryptonite, which is pretty rare (though usually poorly protected by the Metropolis Museum). He could do whatever he wants. There’s a great scene in the real “Superman” movie, the Christopher Reeve one, where the young Clark Kent complains that he could score a touchdown every single time he got the football.
And his father says, “I know now that as sure as we’re gonna see the moon tonight there’s a reason why you’re here. Don’t ask me what reason, don’t ask me whose reasons. But whoever and whatever, there’s one thing I know. … It ain’t to score touchdowns.”
Clark figures it out. He goes to the Fortress of Solitude. He becomes Superman. He chooses to save people and stop crime and improve the world. He chooses to get better every day.
But why? I think that gets at the heart of why Superman movies have gone off the rails and everybody keeps asking: Why? They probe at an internal struggle that I don't think exists. They have him wrestle with a dark side even though the whole point of Superman is that he doesn’t have a dark side. They mock the idea that he would save a cat from a tree even though, in my view, that reveals his character so much more than intergalactic special effect fights ever could.
He saves the cat from a tree because it makes a little girl happy. He always has time for that.
The Superman character I love is unapologetically and entirely good. He’s incorruptible. He’s corny. He’s tough but optimistic. He’s a flying Mister Rogers. Superman’s motivations are not hard for me to understand: He’s powered by the positive energy that comes from the world, and he’s bummed out that people can’t help but hurt each other. He’s molded by the failure of his destroyed home planet and the decency of his Kansas parents. He has these great powers and he believes unquestionably that he was meant to use his powers for good so he does not compromise, does not give in and constantly pushes his own boundaries to make the world better.
Maybe we’re too cynical for that that story. Maybe that kind of Superman can’t sell the 10 gajillion dollars worth of tickets worldwide necessary to make a movie in 2019. Maybe we really have lot our appetite for Superman.
I hope not. I love Superman still. I’d watch that movie.