I love Danny DeVito’s Hoffa. I couldn’t give two busted axles how historically inaccurate it may be. Whether you like this film or not, you might have motor oil on the brain if your views of modern day labor unions sway your feelings for this film. For what it’s worth, I think when Hoffa began to become a prominent member of the Teamsters, unions were needed in America to protect the “working man.” The fact that Hoffa made deals with organized crime to help the union’s cause is almost irrelevant. Hoffa seemed like a man that would have formed alliances with marauding Visigoths if it would have given the Teamsters the upper hand—or tire iron—against management.
Big business is dirty business and all those heavy hitters are about as civil as wild boars gnashing at each other in fields of shit. Nice guys need not apply. You’re a nice guy, go join the minstrel show or work for the Salvation Army. You want to fight for the everyman, you may have to crack a few skulls or get your jaw caved in by management’s hired goons. DeVito shows dilapidated loading docks and cold factory yards almost as 20th Century re-enactments 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. 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 world weary wisdom that one earns from building calluses on their weathered hands. There are no dainty paper cuts here, or recited scripture from expensive schoolbooks in warm office buildings. You learned what you know because it walked up to you and knocked you on your ass. You got up off the frozen ground, drank strong coffee and went back to work.
Hoffa is a man’s movie. There is nary a woman character in the whole flick. There’s a few hookers and some showgirls, a secretary or two, but nothing substantial. We briefly meet Hoffa’s wife in a few scenes. Nicholson—in a really good performance—shows the audience he loves the broad, but there is no romance at all. It’s almost like he acquired his wife for paying his union dues.
Nicholson is very believable as Jimmy Hoffa. He looks and acts like a driven and corrupt union official. One would guess there isn’t much time for pushups and sit-ups when you were required to be up all night negotiating with cheap-ass management, or making back alley deals with shady mobsters. You’re probably not eating too many vegetables when you are being hounded in front of Congressional hearings by Robert Kennedy. Boiled meat and potatoes seems like the food of the prosecuted. One of the best scenes of the movie shows Hoffa and Kennedy squaring off in Kennedy’s office. Hoffa is hilariously blunt, profane and insulting to the entire Kennedy clan in the exchange. Perhaps it mirrors the way some Americans feel about politicians today? Honestly, it seems that Jimmy Hoffa and Trump have similar qualities. Take that and run with it if you will. I just dig this flick, man.
Nicholson might be a little less like “Jack” in this then most of his other roles during this time period. I want to say his Hoffa is more nuanced than his Mr. Jack Napier or Colonel Jessup. We do get to witness a couple of incredibly entertaining outburst of rage. One against Frank Fitzsimmons, played by the late, great JT Walsh. I actually think my mother yelled at me like that a few times when I was a kid. I remember this one time I told my fifth grade art teacher to shove it. She didn’t like my dinosaur drawing. I actually didn’t believe she had the nerve to call my mother. I quickly learned she had the gumption when I got home from school. Tarmac got his little asphalt spanked that day, I can tell you.
The second comes when Hoffa forcefully informs his mob buddy, played by a very good Armand Assante, that he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. We all have moments like this in our lives, for better or worse. Assante has some really entertaining hand gestures in this one. I get a kick of just watching his body language in the pivotal deer hunting scene. Good stuff.
DeVito is just fine as Bobby Ciaro, even if it is a little hard to believe the pint-sized star as a tough guy, willing to pull a gun and smack around a nightclub owner with mob connections. Robert Prosky is entertaining in a small but important role as Billy Flynn. His character seems to be the lynchpin for Hoffa and Ciaro’s friendship. Listening to DeVito recount Flynn’s fate in a bar is one of the film’s best scenes, Mamet’s old school dialogue on full display. It’s like listening to your grandfather spin yarns about his time in the service.
DeVito does a great job directing Hoffa, using artistic flourishes that one might not expect from a foulmouthed Frank Reynolds. I especially loved the repeating reflection in a bar’s men’s room, always a good place for drunken poetry and macho posturing. The film looks fantastic. The period recreation is 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 fits the film well. I especially loved the petite hunting cabins.
One quibble I have with the film is the plot device of Hoffa and Ciaro waiting at the truck stop where he went missing from in 1975. It gives the filmmakers a way for the characters to recall their life together and move the story along like a truck on a Detroit highway. I just wished they didn’t attempt to explain what they thought happened to Hoffa. I would rather the mystery remain. It’s a small gripe, however.
Though it has been over twenty years, I remember Hoffa to be a commercial flop that garnered mixed reviews. I think I have that memory right. Whether you like Hoffa as much as me, I think DeVito deserves credit for making such an ambitious film about one of the twentieth century’s more polarizing figures in America. Regardless of what you think of Hoffa the man, his life made for an interesting story.