Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” debuted on Netflix on Thanksgiving Eve 2019, and #FilmTwitter was immediately in agreement: The movie was clearly designed to be seen at home (except it should really be seen on the big screen), the digital de-aging effects look much better on TV (except that now they’re more jarring) and it’s absolutely OK to pause the film and watch it in chapters (except that you are spitting on the filmmakers by doing so).
No one’s having this conversation about, say, how or whether to watch “Avengers Endgame” on Disney+, because of course Scorsese produced “The Irishman” with Netflix’s backing, and certainly kept in mind that an overwhelming majority of viewers would indeed be watching the film on their home theaters. (He did not, apparently, think anyone would watch it on a phone, and he wishes you wouldn’t.)
The “How to Watch ‘The Irishman'” debate is just the latest incarnation of an ongoing rhubarb among moviegoers. No doubt film nerds in the 1950s had passionate discussions about whether “House of Wax” should be watched flat and not in 3D. And Scorsese himself was, in the 1980s and ’90s, a passionate advocate that “letterboxing” movies — maintaining an anamorphic aspect ratio on the old square TVs — should be common practice for TV channels and VHS tapes and not just limited to laserdiscs.
Creating a cinematic work of art with one eye cocked at the home theater isn’t anything new, either. Back when “Titanic” first hit VHS in 1998 (in both the letterboxed and standard versions), articles would illustrate how director James Cameron intentionally framed shots so they would look good in their wider, big-screen iterations and with the sides chopped off for TV. Now that standard televisions are all rectangular, and that viewers have gotten accustomed to black bars at the top and bottom of the screen when they are necessary to maintain a film’s original look, it’s a moot conversation, but this was a hard-won victory. (The combatants have now moved on to the “motion smoothing” setting on most new TVs.)
And in discussing “The Irishman” on Netflix versus seeing it on the big screen, we have to keep in mind that any second look is going to make viewers notice previously missed details or appreciate script or performance aspects that might have slipped by on a first watch. In his book “Cult Movies 3,” Danny Peary notes that critics who were lukewarm on Scorsese’s “New York, New York” in 1977 came around to loving the film when it was reissued four years later. And while those critics cited the inclusion of the climactic “Happy Endings” number — which comes far too late in the movie to drastically alter anyone’s perception of it — Peary quite rightly points out that it was a second viewing, with different expectations, that changed their minds.
Having watched “The Irishman” once, projected (in a screening room at Netflix’s Los Angeles headquarters), I had a second viewing on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. With the luxury of it not being a work day, I could have powered through all three and a half hours at one go. It’s a little baffling to hear the same people who will happily binge four to six hours of a Netflix TV show gripe about the running time of this epic Netflix movie.
I did, however, take a lunch break, and I took advice from #FilmTwitter and paused the movie right after Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa orders that the flags at Teamsters headquarters be flown at full mast following the death of JFK in 1963. It’s close to the middle, and it’s around where an intermission would probably have occurred had this movie been released in the era when intermissions were common. Can you pause more frequently? It’s not ideal, obviously, but bathroom breaks and dashes to the refrigerator have always been part of the home viewing experience. Just, you know, show some respect when you can.
My home screen is fairly average — about 44 inches — and for me, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography didn’t suffer in the slightest. And while I never had a problem with the digital effects on the actors’ faces, my husband observed that said effects looked more seamless on a smaller screen. That certainly makes sense; the first time I ever saw an HD television, it was showing clips from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and what had looked jarringly awkward in a movie theater (and in 3D, no less) appeared to be much more cohesive on the monitor.
I’m glad I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode, since at any size, “The Irishman” is a movie that requires (and rewards) your full attention. But otherwise, this film absolutely holds up in either format. The second viewing allowed me to more fully appreciate the structure and snap of Steven Zaillian’s screenplay, as well as all the emotion, judgment and realization that Anna Paquin and Lucy Gallina pack into the character of Peggy, even without that much dialogue.
Should you see “The Irishman” on the big screen if it’s available near you? Absolutely. Will the artistry and impact be diminished if you watch the movie on Netflix instead? Not if you turn off your phone and your laptop and allow yourself to be transported by it.