Danny De Vito’s Hoffa is artfully constructed, masterfully played, and travels at speeds beyond the prescriptive norm. It weaves back and forth across the dividing line between truth and myth with the controlled recklessness of an over-the-road trucker making up time by breaching the peace of mind of drivers slower than himself. Jack Nicholson’s Jimmy Hoffa is magnificent, but it is not Jimmy Hoffa. Nicholson has caught and occasionally even come close to incarnating Hoffa’s tragedy. But he cannot define it for us because a misconception of the hero as an idealist keeps getting in his way.
De Vito’s tale, as told by David Mamet, begins with the fallen president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sitting with his last loyal liege and waiting outside a Detroit roadhouse for a sitdown with a Cosa Nostra don. Now and then in these empty hours his mind runs back to past events, and one of them is re-created, returning us to Hoffa at his lonesome vigil, until we are borne on to the next reminiscence.
This recurring device is neatly contrived for packaging the goods and moving them down the road. It nonetheless pays an extortionate price in violations of the probabilities. The clock in the roadhouse has to run nearly six hours for Hoffa to wait for his unfulfilled rendezvous, with no occupation except to read about himself in Robert Kennedy’s The Enemy Within and to muse over old once-happy far-off places and battles long ago.
No one who knew Hoffa, however distantly and untrustingly, could imagine him, exhausted and desperate as he may then have been, idling through an afternoon on the diminishing chance that he might not have been stood up after all. Jimmy Hoffa would not have bided his time that long for the Lord God Jehovah Himself. To look at him carefully was soon enough to mark impatience as the motor of his nature. The late Edward Bennett Williams was Hoffa’s defense counsel in the 1950s and accomplished the prodigy of getting him acquitted after his client had been lured into paying a bribe for a peek into the files of the Senate Committee on Investigations.
On the night after the jury retired, Williams talked about Hoffa. “This guy is a jumper,” he said. “This time he jumped from the eighth floor. If he gets up and walks away, he’ll climb right back to the ninth floor and jump again. He’ll go on doing that until he gets to the thirty-second floor. He has a genius for improving a misdemeanor into a felony.”
Personages so wildly larger than life have doom woven into their very souls. Their reflections in the hours before they meet its final appointment have a character too sacred to admit memories other than absolutely authentic ones. No tragic hero of such size can be taken to be true to himself unless everything he remembers is true to the elementary facts of personal history; and De Vito, Mamet, and even Nicholson have damagingly…
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