Hoffa: Filmmakers Signature Series Review

Danny DeVito’s crowning glory as a creative talent in Hollywood is Hoffa, a layered and complex biopic of Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious leader of the Teamsters. The Teamsters were once the most powerful union in the United States, tightly controlled by Jimmy Hoffa, as he rose through its ranks to become its president in 1958. Hoffa’s ties and connections to organized crime eventually did him in, as he was finally imprisoned in 1967 after locking horns with the U.S. Justice Department led by Robert Kennedy.

The main show is Jack Nicholson’s tour de force performance in the lead role, as Hoffa rises from low-level union organizer to one of the most powerful men in the country. It’s one of Jack’s last great roles, before he devolved into a parody of himself in later films. Along for the ride is Hoffa’s confidant and friend, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito), a brash man that stays loyal to Hoffa until the end. Ciaro is really a fictional amalgam of several Hoffa associates. DeVito plays Ciaro as a character ripped out of Goodfellas, a guy willing to do anything for his boss. He chews the scenery a tad too much, but his role is secondary to Nicholson’s dramatic turn as Hoffa. Going off historical footage of the real Jimmy Hoffa, Nicholson becomes his doppelganger on the screen in both speech and manner.

The comparisons to the Mafia are not far off the mark, as the movie portrays Hoffa running the Teamsters like an Italian crime family. Armand Assante elegantly plays Carol D’Allesandro, a Mob boss that Hoffa gets into business with trying to exploit the Teamsters’ huge pension fund. When Hoffa finally does get convicted of fraud and bribery, the movie effectively conveys the support he still had among the rank-and-file Teamsters. It offers a plausible end to Hoffa’s life, one of the great mysteries of the last century. Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and it is widely speculated he died at the hands of a Mob hit.

Hoffa is an entertaining look at one of the 20th Century’s most fascinating public figures, headlined by sharp performances and deft direction. The script from legendary screenwriter David Mamet is littered with memorable lines and interesting anecdotes, that may or may not have actually occurred. The story uses a clever framing device for Hoffa’s speculated end, which I won’t give away in detail.

Movie ★★★★★

Fox has provided Hoffa a brand-new transfer for this Blu-ray, struck from the original 35mm camera negative. The results are very pleasing and will satisfy the most ardent of film purists. Running 140 minutes, Hoffa is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Given a very strong video encode in the AVC codec, the average video bitrate is slightly over 30 Mbps. It’s not the best catalog presentation on the Blu-ray format, but Hoffa looks as good as anything from its era in HD.

The stylish anamorphic cinematography, nominated for an Oscar, looks better than ever with a tremendous amount of detail and sharpness for a 1992 movie. All the visual signs point to the transfer having been made very recently, as the grain is fully resolved without a hint of degradation or smearing. If there is ringing, it’s confined to mere moments with a very low amplitude. No digital process has been applied to the transfer that could be criticized, this BD uncannily reproduces Hoffa’s original film-like appearance without a problem. Compression happens to be exemplary and retains every speck of detail from the very clean negative. There are absolutely no signs of damage or degradation to the print.

A few scenes are a little soft but for the most part Hoffa is a sharp, crisp HD experience. Certain close-ups display a drastic amount of detail, particularly the very tight shots of DeVito and Nicholson made up to look much older than their actual ages. Flesh-tones are entirely natural and remain a healthy pink most of the time. The contrast is consistently solid with a rich color palette for a drama. Black levels are quite strong, important to the many dramatic scenes taking place in the dark of night with the Teamsters. Shadow detail rarely gets crushed, though delineation wavers a bit depending on the lighting and mood of the scene.

Video ★★★★★

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is a well-crafted mix, appropriate for a dialog-heavy movie with a moderate amount of action. It’s not an outrageous, bombastic mix that overwhelms the listener, but there are enough audio cues to remind one this is a modern surround soundtrack. Fidelity is excellent and dialog comes through the center channel with clarity and precision. The syrupy musical score by David Newman is laden with strings and is a little over-done. However, it is perfectly balanced in the mix with the dialog and foley effects. Hoffa is largely a drama built around speeches and quiet moments, though the soundtrack does come alive for brief stretches when the Teamsters strike or violence is needed to “solve” a problem.

Also provided are a Spanish Surround Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and a French Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The film comes with subtitles in Spanish and English SDH.

Audio ★★★☆☆

Was there anything that Fox forgot to provide on this packed Blu-ray edition? The quality and depth of the included special features are as impressive as any special edition on the format. The only thing missing is a commentary from Jack Nicholson himself. Like all the Filmmakers Signature Series Blu-ray editions, Hoffa includes a very well-produced 28-page booklet, featuring a number of essays and actor profiles on the making of the movie. Don’t skip the 20th Century Fox trailer preceding the movie, for a very special introduction by DeVito himself. A handsome slipcover with Jack Nicholson on the cover rounds out the package.

Commentary by Danny DeVito – This is an engaging monologue where DeVito fondly remembers oodles of production details, delivered in an energetic manner that is unusual for a Hollywood star. He expresses disappointment in Nicholson not receiving an Oscar nomination for the lead role, though DeVito tends to gush over every actor that appears in the movie.

The Music Of Hoffa: A Conversation with Danny DeVito and Composer David Newman (10:31 in HD) – The two participants go over the scoring of the film and how the music for a few key scenes were developed.

Danny DeVito’s Speech at the Teamsters Convention in Las Vegas, 2011 (15:16 in HD) – Largely a political speech given by DeVito to the Teamsters, I’m not sure this extra feature was necessary.

Excised Scenes (5:02 in SD) – Brief scenes that were mostly cut for time from the final version of the film.

Historical News Coverage (7:54 in SD) – A fascination piece of history, it’s the original black-and-white broadcast of the Congressional hearings between RFK and Hoffa. It’s eerie how close the scene in the movie duplicates the verbal sparring seen in the footage.

Personal Anecdotes from Teamsters Members (6:36 in SD) – Terse comments from actual Teamsters about Hoffa and their experiences.

Special Shots (14:13 in SD) – An analysis on the specific camera techniques used on the film in each scene. Hoffa used a number of fancy camera setups during its production, including overhead crane shots and the frequent use of Steadicams.

DeVito’s 11 1/4 (11:02 in SD) – A brief featurette detailing the production during filming, with comments from other actors behind the scenes.

Siskel & Ebert (4:28 in SD) – The original review of Hoffa by Siskel & Ebert on their show, where it is given two thumbs up.

Discussion After the First Script Read-Through (3:34) – An audio-only recording set to still pictures from after the first table reading of the script, featuring Jack Nicholson himself.

Production Gallery – Pictures taken from behind the scenes of the production.

The Hoffa Shooting Script – The entire shooting script for the movie.

Extras★★★★★

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