FILM / Truth and the American way: Reel life, but not as we know it: Hoffa, hard on the heels of Malcolm X, profiles the legendary hardman of the American unions. It should be filed under 'M' for myth rather than 'D' for documentary, argues Richard Combs

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When Hoffa, a bio-pic about the controversial American labour leader Jimmy Hoffa, opens here on 19 March, it will solve a 20-year-old mystery. In the bitter, bloody strikes of the 1930s, Hoffa fought for the truckers' union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. By 1957, when he became its president, he had made it the most powerful union in the US, and furthered its interests by 'investing' with organised crime.

In the 1960s he clashed with Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. He was sent to prison for corruption, was released by Richard Nixon, and in 1975 completely and inexplicably disappeared. That mystery may never have excited as much interest in Britain as, say, the assassination of John Kennedy, or even what happened to Patty Hearst. But in the US it has prompted a comparable number of theories, and inspired its own sardonic bumper stickers. Hoffa supplies an answer.

The whole film, directed by the diminutive comic Danny DeVito, is structured around the last day in Jimmy Hoffa's life, moving in and out of five decades' worth of flashbacks. When his nemesis arrives, it is not unexpected, but it is shocking. It is the betrayal of a dream, and the dispatch of a king, corrupt but noble, by his subjects.

The film is more myth than documentary, more romantic lament than investigative drama. It is another example of an American political film that turns not on the politics but the soul of its central character. The old question of whether he is good or evil is here put in modern existential guise - is he authentic or inauthentic, is he for real or not?

Hoffa, which has so far had fairly negative reviews, may have gone further down the mythic route than is comfortable. There are no titles to tell us when and where we are; there aren't even any opening credits to give us a sense of a specific beginning or ending. We are simply plunged in with Hoffa, waiting out the last day of his life, all his history, and all the history the film covers, compressed into this moment.

It's also compressed into Jack Nicholson's remarkable impersonation of Hoffa - another existential statement. Played by Hollywood's reigning rebel, Hoffa automatically becomes an outsider. David Mamet's screenplay also pushes the film away from the documentary towards the emblematic, towards a theatrical, ahistorical treatment of power, its demands and temptations, its sacrifices and compromises. DeVito complements this with a sweeping visual style, in which Capital always seems to confront Labour in some snowbound night of the soul.

Even so, Hoffa is not that dissimilar from other American films about politics that have adopted very different styles. Last year's Bob Roberts, for example, aped the techniques of the television documentary to investigate the career of a folk-singing candidate of the New Right. Within this imaginary realism, the real Gore Vidal (himself the author of a novel about political hocus-pocus, Messiah) popped up to question not Roberts' policies but his essential self. Never mind what he stands for, what is he? Real or fake, an agent of God or the devil? - 'I detect a whiff of sulphur,' says Gore.

It's precisely because Bob Roberts lacks a real self, the film suggests, that he makes such a good political candidate. He sets up no opposition to the efforts of all the PR people and the spin doctors to manufacture something the electorate will like. Politics is the enemy of political philosophy, particularly when the latter is conceived in terms of a genuine individualism. In the 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford played a civil rights lawyer whose beliefs are gradually leached away when he is persuaded to run for office.

In the epic stakes, a precursor of Hoffa is Warren Beatty's Reds, about John Reed, Louise Bryant and the Russian Revolution. Interspersed with standard set- pieces of the individual caught up in history, the film included testimony from some real-life 'witnesses' - Henry Miller, Rebecca West, Will Durant - who disagreed over who Reed was and the significance of what he did. But behind all these examples, the pre-eminent film about the American character, about the empire builder who is a little boy lost, the powerful individual who becomes an empty public figure, is Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles is not thought of as a political film-maker, but he had been deeply involved in the politics of the Depression-era theatre, and when his film career stalled in the 1940s he tried to enter active politics as a Roosevelt supporter. He was one of the great showmen of the century, and his most famous character was a man who invested everything in show. Citizen Kane teases us by suggesting that it will investigate its hero's real nature, that it will uncover the intimate secret of his dying word, 'Rosebud'.

In the end it shows us everything, particularly everyone else's opinion about Kane, and reveals nothing. The riddle that it leaves us with - was there anything to Kane to begin with, or was it taken away from him? - is the question that many American films will ask about their fallen heroes.

Hoffa's flashback from the day of its hero's dying recalls Citizen Kane, as do certain transitional devices that DeVito uses - a close-up of a watchful eye or a listening ear - to move between scenes of public spectacle. There is, these suggest, some personal link, an individual meaning, a Rosebud, that will explain whether Jimmy Hoffa was 'really' a friend of the working man, a political opportunist, or a tool of the mobsters.

The weakness of the film is not that it doesn't tell us enough, in a documentary sense, about Hoffa, but that it doesn't allow his myth to be as many-sided as Kane's. The real weakness may be the character played by Danny DeVito himself - Hoffa's right-hand man, the representative of the 'little man' and the substitute for any real romantic liaison in the film. DeVito's character never expresses a moment's doubt about his hero, as the friends of Kane certainly do.

Like every American film about politics or public action, the question Hoffa asks is not was this Citizen Teamster true to his cause, but was he true to his nature, and what was his nature? The film creates the mythic framework for this enquiry, but is not confident enough to ask the questions that will really put the myth to the test.

'Hoffa' opens 19 March.

(Photograph omitted)