MPI // 1992 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 18th, 2008
The true story of one of America's most baffling mysteries.
The mystery of Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance is, in actuality, really not much of a mystery. It's generally accepted, by both Hoffa's friends and prosecutors, that he was murdered in July 1975 by members of his own union at the behest of the Mafia, presumably because they feared that he would launch an embarrassingly public crusade to wrest control of the union back from his successors. If there's really a mystery to the story of Hoffa, it's what effect Hoffa's dedicated but corrupt leadership had on the union in the long run. That mystery is not answered by this DVD, although it does frequently come close to unraveling it.
Even now, it's debatable whether Hoffa's guidance truly benefited the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. When Hoffa joined the Teamsters in 1932, the union was only one of many in the Midwest, competing with the likes of the U.A.W., the C.I.O., and many others. By 1964, seven years after Hoffa became the union's president, the Teamsters were the largest and most powerful union in the United States, with a membership in the millions and complete control over all domestic trucking and shipping routes. Hoffa could singlehandedly paralyze the economy by ordering his members to strike, stopping all interstate transport. However, the Teamsters gained all that power at a disastrous price. Hoffa cut sizable deals with some of the most loathsome organized crime leaders of the day, and he wasn't above dipping his hand into the till to take out more than his fair share. Possibly worst of all, he turned the union into a personal instrument for his power. Under Hoffa, the Teamsters union was categorically not a democracy. His unilateral decisions were brutally enforced, and no dissent or discussion was tolerated. By the time of his disappearance, there was no shortage of people, even within the union itself, who were relieved to see him go.
Where's Jimmy Hoffa? intends to tell the story of Hoffa's reign and downfall. Despite its title, though, it's surprisingly skimpy on biographical details. It doesn't even say when and where Hoffa was born, what his family and childhood were like, or how he became interested in labor issues. The lack of biography becomes unintentionally amusing, when, sometime around the 20-minute mark, Hoffa suddenly has a wife and children who have never been introduced or seen before. The film also doesn't do enough to really get us inside Hoffa's mind or explain the roots of his ambitions. Several of Hoffa's Teamster contemporaries recall that he was a scintillating speaker who would bring audiences to their feet. There are no audio or video clips of Hoffa's public addresses, however. The clips of Hoffa speaking seen here are taken from interviews and testimony; in all of them, he sounds like a cagey roughneck. Whatever the reasons for his rise to power, they aren't really clearly explained here.
Where this film does go right is in describing the history of the Teamsters and Hoffa's years as union president. The interviews with aging Teamsters and labor leaders who knew Hoffa are immensely absorbing. Almost all of them, to a man, still defend Hoffa's questionable tactics many decades later. One crusty old trucker snarls that he never entertained the notion that Hoffa violated the law because, as he puts it, "there were no laws back then, so you could do whatever you wanted as long as you didn't kill anybody." To balance out this point of view, Where's Jimmy Hoffa? also includes interviews with journalists, biographers, and even a government investigator, all of whom explain Hoffa's crimes in damning detail. No matter how much Hoffa's defenders try, it's hard to deny that he turned the union over to the Mafia, that he lined his pockets with scams at the expense of his own members, and that his much-touted labor agreements didn't necessarily benefit the rank-and-file of the union but did always benefit Hoffa and his cronies. The film also explains the origins of Hoffa's blood feud with Robert F. Kennedy, who, as attorney general, launched a relentless and ultimately successful campaign to put Hoffa in jail in 1964.
Why did Hoffa disappear? According to the film, the most likely explanation is that neither the Teamsters nor the Mafia needed him anymore. By the time his prison sentence was commuted by President Nixon in 1971 (thanks to a sizable Teamsters donation to the GOP's coffers), the new leaders of the union, backed by their organized crime associates, were simply tired of Hoffa's greed and egomania. Unfortunately for them, once Hoffa left prison, he made it abundantly clear that he fully intended to reclaim his throne. Rather than risk a public and heated battle with Hoffa over control of the Teamsters, one which could have exposed some unsavory connections, they decided to rub him out. The last half hour or so, which hypothesizes what Hoffa's last day was probably like, is the film's best part. The investigative effort that went into this section is thorough, and the many theories for the exact details behind his disappearance are laid out clearly. The only gaping hole is, once again, related to the lack of detail in Hoffa's personal life. The film claims that Chuckie O'Brien, described here as Hoffa's "foster son," was duped into acting as a lure for Hoffa to lead him to his doom. But it never explains what the true nature of O'Brien's relationship to Hoffa was. In fact, this is the first time that he's mentioned anywhere in the film. Apart from this lapse, though, Where's Jimmy Hoffa? does make a creditable attempt to explain his disappearance.
Where's Jimmy Hoffa? was originally released on video in 1992, presumably to cash in on the release of Danny DeVito's biopic Hoffa. For this DVD release, MPI appears to have simply slapped the original full-frame video onto disc without much remastering. As a result, the old black-and-white archive footage winds up looking better than the more recent video interviews, with their shoddy lighting and cheap early '90s computer effects. The Dolby Digital stereo mix is adequate, though rather quiet. There are no extras.
Ultimately, Where's Jimmy Hoffa? would have benefited from more detail into Hoffa the man, but is recommended as a look at Hoffa the labor leader. It's not as comprehensive as it could have been, but does have enough fascinating information to make it worth a look.
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Jimmy Hoffa