Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito) is a truck driver during a turbulent time as the Teamster's Union is fighting the bourgeois company owners for better wages. Ciaro has heard of James R. 'Jimmy' Hoffa (Jack Nicholson), and wants nothing to do with him as his boss doesn't want to hire Union. But when Hoffa stops by his truck while he's trying to catch some sleep, Ciaro can't get rid of him and eventually Hoffa convinces him that what he is proposing isn't such a bad idea.
The next day, Hoffa confronts Ciaro in front of his boss, essentially forcing him out of his job. In Ciaro's anger at losing his job (I believe this is taking place during the 1930s, so losing your job was a very big deal), he tries to kill Hoffa, but fails and Hoffa ends up taking him into his confidence. Eventually, they develop a close relationship with Ciaro acting as Hoffa's number two man.
The movie then follows Hoffa's rise to power as the president of the International Teamster's and his eventual conviction at the hands of Robert 'Bobby' Kennedy (Kevin Anderson).
The movie is actually told as a series of flashbacks while Bobby and Jimmy are waiting at a roadside cafe to talk to a mafia boss. Eventually the flashbacks catch up to Bobby and Jimmy and it is ultimately revealed that this is supposed to be the day Hoffa disappeared. Instead of meeting with Hoffa, the mob boss sends some of his men who kill Hoffa and Bobby and get rid of the bodies.
I'm fairly young (27 at the writing of this) and have only heard of Jimmy Hoffa (he actually disappeared - 1975 -before I was born - 1976). So I was excited to watch this movie, if just to get caught up on the history. And, though I haven't spent much time verifying the portrayal of the movie, I believe it is a fairly accurate account of what happened.
There are a couple of problems with the movie, but they are minor. First, my wife had a hard time following what was going on at the beginning. I can understand why she was having a hard time because it really does jump around quite a bit. It begins with Hoffa making a name for himself then jumps to the future as he is growing more famous, and then even further into the future as he is elected President of the Teamster's. Unless you realize what is happening, it can be a little difficult to follow the story. I think where these jumps became truly poignant was when I realized Hoffa actually had a wife. The movie is so focused on Jimmy's involvement with the mob and the Teamster's that his personal life is completely over-looked. I believe he was sitting by his wife at the funeral in the movie, but because he shows her virtually no attention, let alone affection, I didn't realize it was his wife until he told one of his underlings to get her some food. So, the story jumps around a lot and doesn't look much at Hoffa's personal life.
The other major drawback of the movie is the repeated use of sound stages. There are numerous scenes where it isn't difficult at all to see that they aren't on a location but instead are in a studio. Two rather obvious ones are the opening scene where Jimmy gets into Bobby's truck and when Jimmy goes hunting with the mob boss. You don't have to look hard to realize the lighting in the sky never changes and, even though it is well-painted, the coloring is so consistent that you know you are looking at a painting rather than a real sky.
The acting goes a long way to make up for the minor problems with the story and production. As always, Nicholson is remarkable. He isn't really playing a flamboyant character like he does in About Schmidt, where the character is so bizarre you just can't forget him. Obviously Hoffa was memorable, but even though the movie uses his name as the title, he wasn't the main character in the movie - Ciaro was as the movie was told from his perspective. But what makes Nicholson so amazing is that he seems to have morphed into Hoffa. If you watch the actual footage of the hearing where Hoffa is being interviewed by Bobby Kennedy, you quickly realize they stuck right to the script and Nicholson has Hoffa down to a 'T'. If you don't believe me, the kicker is in the eyes. Hoffa's eyes are a bit beady and they move around erratically. Watch his eyes then watch Nicholson's eyes as he repeats back the monologues and you'll find they are nearly indistinguishable. It really is a captivating performance.
There was only one problem with the acting - Danny DeVito is too short! I liked his character; I thought he did a good job and it was a good portrayal. But he is supposed to be Hoffa's muscle and he can't be more than 5 foot two. There is one scene in particular where this becomes a serious issue. Kennedy sends a legal clerk to come check on the Teamster's files and Bobby pushes him out. The clerk was about a foot taller than DeVito and looked like he could have eaten him for lunch. DeVito, I love your work and enthusiasm, but you really needed to cast shorter actors to push around.
Overall, this is an informative movie. Having watched it, I wouldn't consider myself an expert on Hoffa, but now I can put a face and biography with the name. Nicholson is great but DeVito falls a little short (pun fully intended). Other than a few poor production decisions, this is a very well-made movie. Despite the minor problems, I recommend this movie for anyone that wants a brief but thorough introduction to Jimmy Hoffa.