Donald Trump makes only a few fleeting appearances in Netflix’s Fear City, a three-part documentary about the fight to bring down the New York Mafia in the 1980s. But it’s easy to imagine him bingeing straight through it, hungrily consuming its depiction of, to quote a title card from the first episode, “a lawless city plagued by drugs, violence, and murder.” While the past three decades have seen urban centers renewed and crime rates dropping, Trump’s view of American cities, like much of his understanding of the world, seems to have been frozen in the early 1980s, and the vision he sells to his frightened political base is one of cities as lawless hellholes. On Monday, he once again repeated the lie that Chicago is “worse than Afghanistan.”
That kind of lawless metropolis is the New York we come upon in Fear City, when the Mafia’s five families ruled the city’s five boroughs with an iron fist. It’s up to the men and women (well, actually just one woman) of the FBI to “attempt the impossible” and bring them down—and, eventually, to deliver the five families into the waiting arms of the then–U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudolph Giuliani.
In noir-stained reenactments, director Sam Hobkinson takes us through the mechanics of building a case against the mob—not targeting just stray foot soldiers or even individual bosses but the governing body known as the Commission, the high council through which the families regulated disputes and coordinated their activities. Real-life agents step into the shoes of their younger selves, showing how they’d slip a listening device into a cable box or behind the heating grill of a Jaguar. They tell their stories with practiced ease, as if they’ve done it a thousand times before, mainly because most of them have. (Several are regulars on the mob-documentary circuit, and some have even written books on the subject.)
Fear City brings a certain flair to the proceedings. Every installment kicks off with the nervous trills of Baby Huey’s “Hard Times,” which might make you wonder if you actually sat on the remote and accidentally switched to an episode of The Deuce. But that style comes at the expense of coherence and character. The series is edited with such impatience that it never lets a moment breathe or makes room for the details that might enliven this umpteenth telling of the tale. The interviews are so chopped that at times it sounds like every word was taken from a different sentence. It’s the rare Netflix series that could actually have benefited from stretching out over another hour or two.
Paring the story down to its cops-and-mobsters essentials robs it of its soul. Although we hear participants on both sides talk about how miserable the mob made life for small-business owners, Hobkinson can’t seem to find one to testify in the first person, and when an FBI agent goes on about how mob influence corrupted labor unions, it’s only to point out how expensive that made it for businessmen who hired union labor and so had to negotiate with the Mafia. (It’s implied, but not stated outright, that Trump must have been one of those businessmen, since there was no way to undertake a major construction project in Manhattan without dealing with the mob.) What it might have been like to be a rank-and-file member of a mob-controlled union doesn’t even seem to cross his mind. For as often as their safety is invoked, the everyday people of New York are only an abstraction, talked about in general terms but rarely shown, let alone heard from.
The story of Fear City turns on the introduction of two things: Giuliani and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the latter of which is better known as RICO. And because their purpose in this story is to bring down the mob, it doesn’t behoove the documentary to look too closely at either of them—not Giuliani, for whom the series might serve as a campaign ad, and not RICO, a sprawling, ill-defined law that has been used against targets as varied as adult bookstores and the Catholic Church. (It’s even been considered in recent years as a tool for going after Trump.) Although Fear City paints the New York mob as a ruthless and bloodthirsty organization, it also paradoxically characterizes it as a gentlemanly competitor when it comes to the FBI. John Alite, a Gambino associate who blithely discusses beating people who owed money to the mob, says that mobsters and the feds both understood that it was just business: “Their job is to lock you up. Our job is to get away with it.” (This seems less like a matter of honor among thieves than a practical concession to the government’s power.)
The electronic squiggles of Fear City’s score evoke John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York are classics of the urban warfare genre, and the series shares its title with a 1984 movie by Abel Ferrara, a seamy thriller about the hunt for a serial killer who targets exotic dancers. Those movies, released during a time when urban crime actually was soaring, still saw something alluring in the city’s grimy streets. Fear City’s subjects discuss the city as if they’re looking down from an observation deck, musing over the fate of the ants below. There are no people in its city, just an empty space to be made safe for tourists and those just passing through.