Sometimes it is fun wondering about the proverbial "6th Best Picture" nominee, or the ones that may fall just outside the ring of those that get the official nominations in whatever award celebration you choose. And when the nominations came out and films like A Few Good Men or actors like Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) were recognized for their work, I tried to recall some of their merits compared to others, specifically Hoffa. The former President of the Teamsters who disappeared under notorious circumstances in 1975 was a fascinating to be sure, but how would his life translate onto the big screen, if at all?
The story was written by David Mamet (Ronin) and directed by Danny DeVito. (Throw Momma From The Train). The latter was a curious choice as he had directed primarily comedic material and Hoffa was only his third feature, though he had a larger interest as the film's producer and called a marker of sorts when deciding to cast the title character, with old friend Jack Nicholson taking it on. Mamet's story touches on historical moments through the film, though it is hard to tell just when we first meet Hoffa in his life (my guess would be the mid-1930s, after Hoffa joined the Detroit Teamsters Local), the film starts at Hoffa's disappearance and the hours leading up to it, with flashbacks used to tell his story. DeVito co-stars in the film as Bobby Ciaro, a composite of characters that Hoffa has met through the years, but serves as a device to help decipher the enigmatic Hoffa. The major events in and around Hoffa's life are covered, some of them reinterpreted (his involvement in the Railway Express Agency battles in 1941 are dubbed the Railway Transit Authority), some of them presumably inspired by speculation of Hoffa's activities (such as his mafia involvement and how it impacted his dealings as Teamsters President), some told fairly accurately (such as his battles with United States Attorney General Bobby Kennedy at the height of Hoffa's power), leading up to the aforementioned disappearance.
Based on what I described in the latter half of that previous paragraph, it may certainly be understandable as to why people may have been turned off by the storytelling. In some portions of the film, despite the efforts of the story and the direction, Hoffa is not the most sympathetic guy in the world. I mean, who can send a package to a reporter threatening to expose Hoffa's business practice and still wind up being a nice guy? Perhaps the frustration of the way the story unfolds and the type of person Hoffa is could be best summed up in one of the first acts Hoffa does after he and Bobby are released from prison, when their friend Frank Fitzsimmons (J.T. Walsh (The Negotiator) not only helps get them both out, but as part of the deal, ensures Hoffa can no longer be part of the Teamsters. As a result, Jimmy tries to kill Fitzsimmons with a car bomb. To sum up, this was, to my knowledge, was an assassination attempt that did not occur historically, on a character that perhaps did not do the things Hoffa thinks he did. Got it? Well, I have seen the movie several times and am still trying to process it.
I do not consider it much of a distraction, and am not really concerned about whether the film is more of a biopic or a docudrama, but what brings you into the film early on is Nicholson. Wearing some minor facial prosthetics, as Hoffa he manages to transform from someone whose passion was the benefit of the working man to someone who has lost his way in the latter stages of his life, doing things more for the benefit of his own. He does manage to get an occasional thrill for helping one of his lesser Union brethren, but those thrills come few and far between for him. And he plays off of the supporting cast nicely, with an already established shorthand with DeVito and a growing one (at the time) with Walsh, and his scenes with Armand Assante (American Gangster) feel like something is just bubbling under the surface waiting to explode, which is eventually does to compelling results. For all the praise Nicholson has earned with his more famous roles, it is the lesser known work like this which makes one fully appreciate how great an actor he is.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Fox rolls Hoffa onto Blu-ray with an AVC encode on its 2.35:1 widescreen presentation, with the results looking good. Black levels are good and provide a nice contrast, film grain is evident through viewing and image detail is decent, albeit consistent with filmmaker intentions. Flesh tones and colors are reproduced accurately and naturally, and the visual look of Stephen Burum (who was nominated for his work on the project) is nice on Blu-ray, with many sweeping and tracked shots all looking good and free of artifacts or image noise during viewing. The film looks good, that's for sure.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround track is solid but unspectacular. I tend to have forgotten how quiet the film is despite some of the action in it. Low-end activity was surprisingly absent despite a couple of explosions in the soundtrack, but channel panning is abundant and effective, starting with one of the earliest shots when a truck goes by at the truck stop. Directional effects in rear channels are not terribly frequent, though there is some subtle ambient noise to make a convincing layer of immersion during listening, and dialogue is consistent throughout the experience. It is a fine soundtrack though not mind-blowing.
Similar to Paramount's Sapphire Series or Universal's 100th Anniversary Series Blu-ray releases, Fox is taking old catalog titles and releasing them on Blu-ray as part of something called a "Filmmaker's Signature Series," and throws a new extra or two in for good measure, along with a dancing DeVito in the root menu! Fortunately the decision to port over the extras from the standard definition release was a good one, starting with DeVito's commentary. It is a busy track with occasional gaps in silence, but DeVito does talk about the historical context and footage he referred to during the shoot, and throws some humor in it from time to time. Spot the Tim Burton cameo that he points out during the track for good measure. It is a very good complement to the movie. Four deleted scenes do not contribute much to the discussion, but the eight minutes of historical news coverage is a nice quick comparison to Hoffa the icon and Hoffa the cinematic figure. DeVito-filmed interviews with Teamsters who provide anecdotes of the leader are next and are engaging for a moment or two follow, and the subsequent Special Shots section serves as a more intense breakdown of various scenes and includes commentary from DeVito. An underrated bonus to say the least.
Also underrated but just as entertaining is "DeVito's 11 1/4," an on-set production diary of sorts which DeVito filmed. The aforementioned Burton cameo is shown a little more and is funny, and the overall segment is well worth the time. An extensive stills gallery of the production is included, along with the original review of the film on the Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel show At The Movies. The shooting script can even be accessed and perused. The new extras are intriguing though a touch unnecessary, particularly DeVito's speech at the 2011 Teamsters Convention. Running about 15 minutes, it is a mix of humor and union appreciation. The better extra is "The Music of Hoffa," a ten-minute conversation where DeVito and composer David Newman discuss the music from the film. Included is an almost-30 page booklet filled with interviews, biographical details and some critically positive quotes on the film.
Hoffa seems to have been swept under whatever popular undertow that has occurred since its release, but with a powerful performance by Nicholson and an entertaining if not dramatically creative story on the figure he portrays, the film is worth watching for those who have not seen it. If you have and own a copy, the upgrade may be worth shelling out for the cash for, as the low price point and expansive extras are an easy buy. It should be a buy regardless, for nothing else so that other consumer-friendly disc directors like DeVito make similar releases in the future.