Fact vs. Myth: What ‘The Irishman’ got wrong about Hoffa story

Did Frank Sheeran kill Jimmy Hoffa?

DETROIT – Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Irishman,” follows the story of Frank Sheeran, a man who was allegedly involved in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

The film is getting rave reviews. It’s available to watch on Netflix. It’s about three and a half hours, so you’ll need to make some time for it.

Hoffa’s disappearance is one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the 20th century. He lived most of his life in Detroit and was last seen 20 miles north of the city. Interest in what happened to Hoffa has never waned, and the mystery only deepens as the decades pass.

Season 4 of WDIV’s Shattered Podcast series focuses on the life and death of Hoffa. The first episode will be released on Dec. 3, wherever you listen to podcasts.

So, how does “The Irishman” stack up against the facts of the case? We talked to historian Scott Burnstein about what the film got wrong, according to his research.

Did Frank Sheeran Kill Jimmy Hoffa?

Burnstein: "Frank Sheeran did not kill Jimmy Hoffa. He did not kill Joe Gallo, and he probably didn’t kill Salvatore (Sally Bugs) Briguglio.

I, from my research, am able to tie Sheeran to, I think, one murder. Other than that, I questioned his resume as a hitman. It’s all kind of pomp and circumstance. It’s what he says is murder. At first, I was able to entertain the idea that he had something to do with the conspiracy and it was just kind of holding back, and giving bits and pieces of it that suit him best. But the further I’ve dove in to, to the man that is Frank Sheeran, I’m convinced it’s all a giant hoax, and a scam and a con job. He’s a con man. And this is it.

Frank Sheeran is conning people from the grave right now.

This is what I’ll say was true about the movie: Sheeran was a Teamster; Sheeran knew Jimmy Hoffa; and he probably had killed someone in the past. I think those three things are true and then everything else is embellished."

Was Russel Buffallino as powerful as he was portrayed to be in the movie?

Burnstein: "Buffallino has gone effectively from the most underrated mob Don in America to the most overrated mob Don in America. He was someone that was from a part of the country that you wouldn’t assume would have as much power as he had. He was from Northeast Pennsylvania, rural mafia boss that happened to have some pretty deep connections in New York City.

But by no means was Russell Buffallino some omnipotent, all-knowing, all-powerful shot caller, like they make it seem like in the film. That he was dictating mob policy or Teamster’s policy -- that he was pulling strings with the commission. I don’t think any of that is true. He wasn’t as powerful as they make them out to be in the film."

Was Tony Giacalone as nominal as he was made out to be in the movie?

Burnstein: "I know that you weren’t going to shoot it in Detroit, but to not really put any of the story here, and to make it look like the Detroit mob didn’t really have anything to do with Jimmy Hoffa, that he was being controlled by the New York mafia -- that was another, a big misnomer.

I mean, he lived in Detroit. He was brought up through the ranks in Detroit. So, the Detroit crime family had “ownership” of Jimmy Hoffa. And you would never be able to tell that by the film.

They made Tony Giacalone out to look like a waterboy or a lackey. And believe me, believe me, Tony Giacalone was as far from a lackey as possible. Giacalone was a mobster’s mobster -- the type of guy that could cut ice with his stare, the kinda guy that played second banana to nobody in the American mafia. And in the movie, it makes it look like he was Tony Provenzano’s driver or that he carried his briefcase. And I thought that was just irresponsible storytelling."

Were Sheeran and Hoffa actually friends?

Burnstein: “I don’t think that that Frank Sheeran was a confidante or an incredibly close friend to Jimmy Hoffa. I think they knew each other and they liked each other.

But the idea that they had some type of kinship or that they were best friends or that Sheeran was the only person that Jimmy Hoffa could trust -- the only person that would have his back. I just bristle at that notion."

Did the film portray Hoffa accurately?

Burnstein: “I thought that was actually pretty good. I think it demonstrated how Jimmy Hoffa was his own worst enemy, and couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that there were powers that be, and people that control those powers that be, that would do anything to keep him away from the union. And he kept on wanting to tempt fate. He kept on wanting to poke the sleeping lion. And then eventually the sleeping lion devoured him.”

About the Authors:

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.