“I am not becoming like them, Maggie, I am them”
Like the business of spying and counter-espionage, the mob versus the agency is an eternal battle of wits and wills, and, like spy films, frequently portrayed on the big screen. Since there is much by way of real life drama to be portrayed, fiction is hardly required – but when the fiction is The Godfather (starring a certain Al Pacino – wonder what became of him?) and the biopics number Goodfellas, there are eternal benchmarks against which to measure each newcomer to the genre.
In Mike Newell‘s contribution, Donnie Brasco, “based on a true story,” that means Johnny Depp‘s Special Agent Joseph Pistone (working under the nom de guerre Donnie Brasco) must earn the trust of a certain Al Pacino as Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero to gain leverage in order to work his way into the Brooklyn mob (as opposed to Serpico, where Pacino was the one working under cover to root out police corruption.)
Pistone’s job means making real life friends, doing things way beyond the fuzzy line of the law, all the better to prove his credentials and earn trust while gathering information to send the mob guys to the slammer for a very long time, but in so doing he will come very close to losing his soul. Pigs and men, men and pigs, as Orwell put it.
There’s a perilously thin line between wise guys and undercover agents attempting to rat them out. Death lurks round every corner but the the good guys must assimilate into the culture to earn trust, all the better to sting the big guy, but it must be for the greater good – even if the morality becomes sticky along the way. The greater good in this case was over 200 indictments and 100 convictions, rewarded by a medal and a cheque for $500. The cost was having to live the rest of his life under an assumed name in an undisclosed location with a $500k bounty on his head.
It’s not a life a family man would choose, or at least his family would not choose it since his time with them is almost non-existent – and Pistone’s long-suffering wife Maggie (Anne Heche), who eventually suffers a physical as well as verbal backlash, giving rise to the quote featured above.
But the reality is that it’s his neck on the line, according to the whims of Mafia politics. Every day he takes risks. For example, a close encounter in Florida, witnessing murder in a gang war and cutting up bodies was beyond the pail, then an order to whack a guy to become a made man almost happens – but for an FBI raid. That’s where the line is drawn.
But there’s another catch: it’s not just the violent business of the Mafia that poses the risks. Get your cover blown and you’re a dead man walking. You might give your own game away and therefore have to be a consummate actor and have the balls of Hercules to fend off close encounters. Get any one of them wrong and a bullet will be in his brain. That moment comes when Ruggiero spots a newspaper article about the yacht Pistone/Brasco hires for the visit of the big man, Santo Trafficante, since it was used for another FBI sting operation. I bet Pistone’s heart was in his mouth at that moment.
The relationship between Ruggiero and “Brasco” is, in the dangerous terms of Mafia loyalties, surprisingly tender and gruffly affectionate, almost the father-son relationship Ruggiero wishes he had had with his junkie son. The banter is all there: “Are you walking out on me? You don’t walk out on me. I walk out on you.” The mutual trust they build is the only reason Pistone can talk his way out of the situation, until the FBI boys rescue him.
Looking through the mob family, there are dodgy characters everywhere, such that even made men get whacked, whatever the rules of the game. My favourite on-screen villain is undoubtedly Michael Madsen‘s Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, promoted to capo above Ruggiero. Anyone who has seen Reservoir Dogs knows that Madsen oozes evil better than almost any other actor currently doing the rounds, such that you could quite easily believe him capable of acts of random violence.
The genuine menace is what transforms this from a routine gangland thriller to something special. Donnie Brasco suffers only by comparison with the many other great mob films, but in itself is gritty-yet-tender, perfectly competent and watchable, well acted – assuming Depp is your thing (he convinced a lot of people but not sure I would have fallen for his schtick) – and worthy of the critical acclaim it received.