IN 1978, THE U.S. GOVERNMENT WAGED A WAR AGAINST ORGANIZED CRIME. ONE MAN WAS LEFT BEHIND THE LINES.
I was just listening to a political debate about Islamic terrorism. One of the participants talked about how intelligence agencies need to do more than just tap phones; they need to put ”boots on the ground” by trying harder to infiltrate terror cells. Perhaps they already are. I came to think of the story of Donnie Brasco and how an FBI agent infiltrated organized crime and spent a whole year undercover. Rightwing and Islamic terrorism are some of our time’s greatest threats, another kind of organized crime. Are there any new Donnie Brascos out there?
Taking a jewel thief under his wing
In the late 1970s, New York City gangster Benjamin ”Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) starts noticing a young man and asks around. He turns out to be Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a jewel thief. ”Lefty” asks Donnie for the value of a ring he got from a diamond dealer, but Donnie tells him it’s a ”fugazzi”, fake. ”Lefty” doesn’t believe him, but when they go to the dealer Donnie turns out to be right and his aggressive attitude impresses the old gangster. ”Lefty” takes Donnie under his wing and introduces him to several ”made men”, notably Dominick ”Sonny Black” Napolitano (Michael Madsen) who is promoted to captain when the Bonnano family’s street boss is killed.
As these men come to trust Donnie Brasco, they have no idea that he is in fact an FBI agent.
Stays true to the actual story
Director Mike Newell showed a wider range here, after a few pleasantly British comedies; this wouldn’t be his only movie to have a darker streak. The film stays true to the actual story of how Joseph D. Pistone infiltrated the Bonnano family, but takes a few liberties. In the book, Pistone writes about how close he came to ”Sonny Black” and that the mobster couldn’t believe that this man he had confided in turned out to be working for the feds. But screenwriter Paul Attanasio obviously thought it would be more interesting dramatically to make ”Lefty” the gangster who virtually becomes a father figure to Donnie/Joseph over the year.
Pacino is excellent in that role, a sad figure who has grown older and is quickly losing influence even though he’s reputed for having 26 hits to his name. When ”Sonny Black” gets promoted, ”Lefty” confides in Donnie, letting him know how bitter he’s becoming. As the relationship between ”Lefty” and Donnie grows deeper, the more touching it is, especially since we all know that it is going to come to an end in one way or another. Depp is also compelling as the undercover agent. On the surface, his record at the FBI has been erased but he still has a wife and three daughters whom he rarely gets to see. The deeper he gets involved with the Bonnano family, the more he turns into an actual gangster, committing crimes and finding it hard to separate his mobster mentality when he talks to his wife. Anne Heche’s part is largely thankless, but the declining marriage between her and Depp says a lot about the immense sacrifice that Pistone makes, trying to ensure a successful investigation but also protecting ”Lefty” as much as he can.
The film’s final scenes depicting Pistone and ”Lefty’s” ultimate fates are heartbreaking. Pacino is famous for his gangster movies, but this is an entirely different role, echoing a Shakespearian tragedy. The period details seem right; Patrick Doyle’s music score subtly emphasizes tension and emotion.
Pistone was involved in the making of the film and wrote in a subsequent book called ”Unfinished Business” that it is 90 per cent accurate. Doing what he did seems almost impossible… but the film brilliantly brings out the human aspects of such a lethal challenge.
Donnie Brasco 1997-U.S. 127 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Louis DiGiaimo, Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson, Gail Mutrux. Directed by Mike Newell. Screenplay: Paul Attanasio. Book: Joseph D. Pistone, Richard Woodley. Music: Patrick Doyle. Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin ”Lefty” Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick ”Sonny Black” Napolitano), Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche… Zeljko Ivanek, Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti.
Trivia: Also available in a 147-min. version. Joe Pesci was allegedly considered for a role. At an earlier stage, Stephen Frears and Tom Cruise were reportedly attached as director and star.
Quote: “Whackin’ the boss… another thing I get left out of.” (Pacino)
Last word: “Because ‘Four Weddings’ was a romantic comedy, I was getting a lot of romantic comedy scripts and most simply weren’t very good. And I don’t like doing the same trick twice because it bores me… So I really wanted to do something tough, about men. And I got the script by Paul Attanasio. And it had been on the shelf about six years, because it originally had been scheduled to get made at the same time ‘GoodFellas’ was being done. And the producers thought, quite wisely, that that wouldn’t work. So I got the script and thought the writing was just fabulous. There was a drama of real lives there.” (Newell, The Hollywood Interview)