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Hoffa distorrts life of labor leader with one-sided approach

Directed by Danny DeVito.
Screenplay by David Mamet.
Starring Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito.

By Joshua M. Andresen
Staff Reporter

Danny DeVito does to James R. Hoffa what Oliver Stone did to John F. Kennedy. Hoffa is a biographical film based somewhat on fact, but also based in large part on the imaginations of writer David Mamet and director Danny DeVito. They extol Hoffa so much that the film turns out one-sided and boring.

Jack Nicholson plays Jimmy Hoffa, the labor movement leader who shaped the history of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the most powerful labor union in America. Nicholson gives an intense acting performance. Danny DeVito plays Bobby Ciaro, a fictional character who is intended to be an amalgam of several of Hoffa's lieutenants.

DeVito also directs this film, playing the double role of actor and director for the first time since War of the Roses. DeVito read the script in 1989 and decided he really wanted to do it, with Nicholson playing the part of Jimmy Hoffa. DeVito admits that at the time, he did not know anything about the labor leader, but he claims to have done extensive research about the man, including viewing all the existing film footage of Hoffa's public appearances.

It seems odd, then, that an exclusively positive view of Jimmy Hoffa emerged. Just as most people agree that John F. Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman, most also agree that Jimmy Hoffa was intimately involved in organized crime. The film does not totally ignore this aspect of Hoffa's life (doing so would be blatantly off the mark) but it assigns Hoffa only a peripheral involvement with the Mafia.

Despite this flaw, DeVito does many interesting things with the script. Most of the film is made up of flashbacks from Ciaro as he sits with Hoffa waiting for someone to show up for a meeting. The action flips back and forth from the waiting period to the flashbacks. The transitions are very well done, taking you back and forth smoothly, as though you were having a flashback yourself. This works well.

In the end, Hoffa spends too much time on what Jimmy Hoffa did (or what Mamet imagines he did) and too little time on who Jimmy Hoffa was. The film covers four decades, from before Hoffa's rise to the Teamster presidency to his disappearance. A touch of a personal slant would perhaps have made the film more engaging. Furthermore, the film would have been improved with some element of conflict concerning the opinion of Hoffa. The only people in the movie who have a bad opinion of Hoffa are portrayed as wrong.

If this film gets any Academy Award nomination, it should be for best make-up. Jack Nicholson is made to look almost exactly like Jimmy Hoffa. For those who know what Hoffa looked like, it is almost scary to see Nicholson up on the screen.

The most interesting part of this film is the explanation it presents for Hoffa's disappearance. It is creative and amusing, even if it is not at all factual.

If you lived in the era of James R. Hoffa, this will perhaps be worth seeing. Otherwise, the film's blatantly one-sided picture of the Teamster leader makes it not worth your while.