Downsizing the Mob

DonnieBrasco’s new Mafia realism.

Donnie Brasco
Directed by Mike Newell
A TriStar Pictures release

When, after an absence of several years, Al Pacino returned to the screen in Sea of Love (1989), he looked like a human filament: all dark, burning eyes that never seemed to blink. His intensity was startling, but you couldn’t be sure how to take him. Always an actor of moods, his timing had become even more capricious. He didn’t speak his lines, he distended them: He never seemed to want to let them out of his mouth. At once manic and zoned-out, Pacino acted in a hambone universe of his own, and when he was rewarded with an Oscar for his grandstanding in Scent of a Woman (1992)–well, as the gangsters in his new film, Donnie Brasco, might say, “Fuh-get about it.”

In Donnie Brasco, Pacino has been cast as a sad little Mafia second-rater named “Lefty” Ruggiero, who boasts repeatedly of having “clipped” 26 guys, yet is always passed over for promotions within the “family.” With his gold chains and fur collars, Lefty is a howlingly tacky parody of a mobster, and Pacino uses all his blowhard insecurities, along with his patented air of electrified stupor, to elicit from us an astounding degree of sympathy. Nothing Lefty says or does comes out right–especially his adoption of a protégé, a young jewel thief called “Donnie Brasco” (Johnny Depp) who turns out, of course, to be an undercover FBI agent.

The miracle of the film, which is based on a memoir by the real “Brasco,” Joseph D. Pistone (in collaboration with Richard Woodley), is that with so many layers of irony, it’s so emotionally pure–and so wrenching. Partly this comes from the tension between the snappy, driving screenplay by Paul Attanasio and the elegiac tone of the director, Englishman Mike Newell (along with his magnificent composer, Patrick Doyle). And partly it comes from Pacino, whose epic self-absorption, in this context, makes Lefty seem heartbreakingly vulnerable, even while he’s blowing people’s heads off. It’s hard to think of another American film with this range of moods: satirical, sometimes hilarious, yet suffused with a sense of loss and riddled with the kind of violence that makes you recoil and lean forward simultaneously.

I knew the screenwriter, Attanasio, in college and later, when he was the chief film critic of the WashingtonPost. Watching DonnieBrasco, I remembered that he loved to quote from a relatively obscure scene in TheGodfather, the one by the stove in the Corleone kitchen in which Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) discoursed on the art of frying sausages and peppers for young Michael (Pacino). Loose and giddy, a relief from all the gore and gravitas, the scene made even more explicit the movie’s theme of “family,” both real and extended. As nightmarish as the Corleones’ lives came to be, there was still something seductive about being taken under the wings of expansive father figures with few uncertainties about what they were put on this earth to do. What a kick to see Pacino, 25 years later, in the Clemenza role, demonstrating for “Donnie” how to make coq au vin. This time, though, the scene has an undercurrent of shame. Pistone knows that he’s exploiting the older man’s best, most fatherly instincts, and it tears him up. Later, there’s a tiny but significant moment when Lefty wonders how “Donnie” could be a traitor when he’s been a guest in Lefty’s home–when Lefty has cooked for him.

L ike The Godfather, Donnie Brasco revolves around families, except that they’re now the source of guilt instead of reassurance. Lefty seems drawn to “Donnie” because he bears a physical resemblance to the gangster’s own son, a junkie who keeps his distance. So Lefty’s exhortations on the subject of wise-guy etiquette–carry your money in a wad, not a wallet, lose the facial hair–have an unusual zeal: Lefty is looking for another shot at fatherhood. Pistone, who dislikes the officious superiors in his FBI “family,” boasts of having his hooks in Lefty, but comes to dread (and delay) the moment when he’ll be pulled out of Operation Donnie Brasco and called upon to bring about his mentor’s demise. There’s another tortured family, too: Pistone’s wife and three daughters, who languish in the absence of a steady father.

I wasn’t looking forward to the scenes with Joe’s wife, Maggie, because the stick-in-the-mud spouse has become such a cliché–although I was curious to see what the vivid young actress Anne Heche could do with a role in which she didn’t have to shed her clothes. As written and played, however, Maggie’s scenes are intrusions in the best sense: They gnaw on Pistone from another angle; they add a point to the film’s complex geometry. Heche, who played Demi Moore’s doomed doctor girlfriend in The Juror, brings a wounded poetry to Maggie’s bedragglement. Sagging under the weight of running a household–and of her daughters’ unspoken but persistent disappointment–she has no vocabulary to convey to her husband what she’s going through. She can’t share his work or know his daily (sometimes weekly) whereabouts, and you can see how the powerlessness eats at her. When she finally takes action–changing the family’s phone number without informing him–her justification has a scary force: “Now I know how it feels to be in control.”

On the evidence of his book, Pistone was truly torn up about having abandoned his family for the years it took him to infiltrate the mob, but he didn’t lose as much sleep over what he was doing to his Mafia family. That’s the screenwriter’s conceit. And the actual Lefty seems to have had much less stature. (The part Pacino plays is a fusion of that Lefty and the nobler aspects of gang leader “Sonny Black” Napolitano–whom the film reduces to a remorseless hothead, played by the new king of movie bullies, Michael Madsen.) The story has been fictionalized, but it hasn’t been Hollywood-ized. Donnie Brasco gives us a novel perspective on gangsters–as the bottom feeders of capitalism. Underlings huddle in the cold outside a Little Italy social club, waiting for the boss, who emerges from a black sedan with a fat cigar in his mouth. Most of the time, these shabby “soldiers” just sit around and rack their (small) brains for new schemes, worried that if profits fall too low, they’re going to find themselves “clipped” or “whacked.” They’re like salesmen who have to meet their quotas or they’re out–downsized, only literally, into small pieces.

Scenes like the ones in the social club and in the gangsters’ homes have a real comic authority. Lefty, an “animal lover,” reclines on a ghastly blue-green lounge chair in a red sweat suit, watching videotapes of gazelles being pounced on and devoured by lions. (He longs to be the lion, but he ends up as the gazelle.) He can’t even mount a competent search of Pistone’s automobile for a “wire,” finally giving up with the stereo in a shambles and offering to buy another car. (“You want a DeVille?”) Sprawled on a motel sofa, fielding awestruck questions from a couple of junior FBI agents, Pistone expounds on the meaning of the phrase “Fuh-get about it” (which, depending on one’s inflection, can signal fatalistic acceptance, doomed resignation, murderous rage, enthusiastic agreement, or nothing in particular) in a speech that will live long in the hearts of gangster-movie mavens. Apart from Lefty’s last line in the film, which is moving but also way too pat, there isn’t a single element on which Attanasio hasn’t put a fresh spin.

Nor is there a moment when Newell takes the easy way out. I’ve always found his films (Dance With a Stranger, The Good Father, Four Weddings and a Funeral) a little obvious, but his work here has an authentic sense of place. Donnie Brasco feels rooted. More important, Newell molds these disparate performers into a tightly knit family of their own. Depp does fine, believable work. His “Donnie” is cagey and recessive, and when he reverts to Joe Pistone, he doesn’t relax–he gets wiry, as if he needs to discharge all his tension. If there’s a problem with Depp’s acting in general, it’s that he’s so serious, so concentrated, so unplayful; his characters almost never have more than a single dimension at a time.

But these are quibbles: Donnie Brasco is everything it needs to be. It might not have the scope of The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, yet among all the gangster pictures since Coppola’s epic, it has no peer. (Goodfellas? Fuh-get about it.) Exploring a more mundane milieu, it serves as the missing link between us and The Godfather–a gangster movie for a mingier, more cynical era, when even doing good comes with a terrible cost, and where every family tie is a snap of the wrist away from a garrote.

“Fuh-get about it”: “Donnie Brasco” (Johnny Depp) with FBI technicians (Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti) (30 seconds):
Sound04 - donnie1.avi or Sound05 -; download time, 4 minutes at 56K Sound01 - movie-donnie1.asf for sound only

A domestic spat: Maggie (Anne Heche) and Pistone (Depp) (30 seconds):
Sound06 - donnie2.avi or Sound07 -; download time, 2.25 minutes at 56K Sound02 - movie-donnie2.asf for sound only

Dreams of the future: Lefty (Al Pacino) and “Brasco” (Depp) (30 seconds):
Sound08 - donnie3.avi or Sound09 -; download time, 2.50 minutes at 56K Sound03 - movie-donnie3.asf for sound only