DONNIE BRASCO. (1997)
A Film by Mike Newell.
“If I come out this guy Lefty dies, that’s as good as me putting the bullet in his head myself”
As Donnie attempts to explain to his wife the quandary in which he finds himself, it is obvious that his predicament is tearing him apart. Ostracized from his family and alienated from his colleagues this true to life drama chronicles the story of undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone as he infiltrates a mafia crime family embezzled in civil war.
It is rare in a mob related movie that ‘the snitch’ can come out with any credit, historically they've betrayed their friends and stabbed in the back those who cared for them their whole lives. One only has to look at the silver screen portrayal of the likes of Henry Hill and Sammy Gravano. Joseph Pistone alias Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) manages this with aplomb. Here is a ‘rat’ who cares, who does anything but put himself first as he seeks to save the life of his best friend.
So much so that he isn’t “becoming like them” he “is them”
Introduced as “Don the Jeweller” Brasco soon becomes acquainted with down on his luck Wiseguy Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), who takes him under his wing, rapidly showing him the ropes and teaching him the etiquette (which for anybody who is unfamiliar with the mafia code of conduct comes in pretty useful). while at home Joe the husband and father attempts to play the family man.
In one sentence Donnie is told that his moustache has to go, that a Wiseguy carries his money in a roll, not a wallet and that he must replace his jeans with a pair of pants, after all “this isn’t a fucking rodeo”.
A cold, rainy winter in Brooklyn, New York is the setting for most of the action, attempting to dispel the myth that the mafia life is one of luxury. In this world the affluent and flamboyant Martin Scorsese portrayal of the ‘Wiseguy’ is replaced by guys who barely have enough money to put food on the table and are crippled by the obligation to ‘kick upstairs’ any money they can score. Dining at the Copacabana with glamorous Goumada‘s is certainly not on the agenda for Lefty and co.
The catalyst for the internal conflict that tears the ‘family’ apart is the murder of the boss and the ‘upping’ of the viscous Sonny Red (Robert Miano) and Lefty’s associate Sonny Black (Michael Madsen). Under Sonny Black’s psychotic reign as skipper, Donnie becomes embroiled in mob activity further than he could ever imagine and his transformation from loyal FBI agent to fully fledged gangster is well underway. It seems clear that Madsen’s star turn as the evil Mr Blonde in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs influenced Mike Newell’s decision to hand him the role of Sonny Black as the character seems to be simply an extension of the razor happy psycho.
It is of course a subconscious change within Donnie - which becomes noticeable by his speech and his increasing contempt for his bureau colleagues - as his family relationship becomes increasingly strained by his crippling hours and his apparent change in attitude. His Father-Son like relationship with Lefty also comes under threat as Sonny seeks to get his claws into Donnie as he unearths a business venture is Florida.
Lefty is the forgotten man of the Mafia. Continually passed over when promotions are awarded, yet always on hand when the orders are being given out he barely has two cents to rub together; he becomes increasingly resentful towards Sonny Black and sees Donnie as ‘siding up’ to him, saying he would rather put a bullet in his own head than lose him to Sonny.
Pacino is superb in the role of Lefty. One is so used to seeing him as the all-powerful figure in his movies, 'The Godfather' trilogy and The Devil's Advocate' being prime examples. It is very refreshing to see him in a role where he is the oppressed and he is the one taking the orders; it is arguable that this performance ranks alongside those aforementioned roles. The same could be said of Depp, who puts in a stellar performance; his masterful transition can only be picked up on by body language and his subtle change in dialect.
Sonny’s operation in Florida is soon sabotaged by rival family member Sonny Red (all of these Sonny’s can get a little confusing I know!) leading to a horrific blood bath, which sees a begrudging Donnie with a saw in his hands and it isn’t for cutting down trees, if you catch my drift.
With his family life in tatters and his cover almost blown by his bumbling FBI colleagues, the time has come for Brasco to pull out, but in knowing the fate of “Lefty” - the guy who vouched for him - if he does come out leads a guilt ridden Donnie to break his contact with the FBI in an desperate attempt to save the life of his friend and convince him to leave the life, which has left him broke and downtrodden.
“Lefty” however, has another issue on his mind, namely the integrity of one Donnie Brasco. Newell leaves us with the enigma of whether Lefty intended to kill Donnie due to his suspicions. The FBI pull Donnie out just in time to save perhaps him and definitely save the life of young Bruno - Sonny Red’s son - who’s contract killing was supposed to lead to the books being opened up for Donnie, he was all set to become a member…… ‘a made man’.
The inevitable happens to Lefty and Donnie is left with a commemorative medal and a cheque for $500 dollars for 2 years of hell in which he himself died a small death and which left his family life in ruins. As with so many gangster movies The ‘feds’ are portrayed as bloodsucking morons, only interested in procedure; the impersonal presentation Donnie’s of his medal is just a small indicator of the way the FBI treat their own.
However when audiences sympathise with ‘Special Agent Joseph D. Pistone’ as they inevitably will, it must be taken into his consideration that this is HIS story, the screenplay is adapted from HIS book. In any other mob story he would be portrayed not as the moral centre, but as the ‘stool pigeon’ who allowed the death of a man who loved him like a son and the indictment of many friends who cared for him like a blood brother.
This being said, ‘Donnie Brasco’ remains a magnificent movie and one of the most well told mob stories of all time. It was marketed as the finest gangster film since 'The Godfather', which is some billet to live up to considering the competition provided by Scorsese’s masterful duo ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’ and Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’.
This may be a bridge too far for ‘Donnie Brasco’ but in another film which allegedly sympathises with the violent and criminal world of the mobster, the ending remains far from a happy one. A common error made by those who dismiss the genre as portraying society’s undesirables as ‘the beautiful people’ is that is shows the immoral life as being the good life. A key convention that is also ignored is that at the end of each one of these narratives, the main characters are either dead, behind bars or spending the rest of their days hiding in the witness protection programme with a $500,000 open contract on their head like Mr Joseph D. Pistone. They did not live happily ever after.
Perhaps these directors aren’t such folk devils after-all, perhaps they really do believe that a 9-5 job is the right way to live your live, isn’t that right Quentin?