There’s a scene at the beginning of Hoffa that is mentioned as a through line during the rest of the movie: Hoffa and a friend are going to burn down a business that won’t co-operate with their efforts to unionize, but they mistime the explosion and the friend ends up getting massively burned. They rush him to a hospital, where it’s obvious that there isn’t much the doctors can do to save him. They summon a priest to read him his last rights. The priest asks him what he needs to repent. The friend has the priest lean over to get closer and then he says “fuck you.”
The “fuck you” story gets repeated a few times because it’s supposed to capture the ethos of these tough men who won’t take any shit. But while it is a story of a man who won’t bend, of a man who stays true to the end, it’s also a story about a guy who wants his last act of life on earth to be saying something rude to a stranger. There’s a duality to the story that I’m not sure that this movie really sees because it only wants to see the most bad-ass interpretation of the story, when I see something a bit more sad in it.
It’s really easy to make a preachy crime movie, one that judges it’s characters for the choices they make, so I suppose it’s a positive that Hoffa remains so neutral on it’s characters. It shows what they chose to do without judging them for it or trying to explain why they did what they did. But while that’s more fair to the people who inspired this film, it’s also kind of a disservice to the truth. We never hear from the guy who got his business burned down, nor do we hear about the guys who wanted to work without having to pay dues to a corrupt union. This film is all about the guy who is saying “fuck you” and never about the priest who is an innocent bystander.
I’m not advocating that they make a wishy-washy movie that holds the audience’s hand to say “this is bad”, but I would have liked something with a bit more of the big picture. We never hear from any of the union men that Hoffa is representing – we just see them as faceless crowds who are always cheering, or as anonymous truckers pulled over by the side of the road in solidarity with Hoffa as he’s being driven to jail. That means that this movie is really missing a lot of the context that makes Hoffa interesting: as a guy who built unions he really empowered working people, but as a corrupt front for the mob he also squeezed those guys and got rich on their backs. Can you understand Hoffa’s story without understanding their stories? A straight forward retelling of the facts seems like it would be less interesting than a more shades of gray exploration of the ethics of what these complicated people did.
Still, the unapologetic perspective makes the film feel different from your average mob movie, and the nice touches in the period detail and solid acting makes this an interesting enough film for me to recommend it.