DONNIE BRASCO (1997) *** 1/4
FBI agent Joe Pistone, posing as Donnie Brasco, did infiltrate the Mob in the 1970s and eventually this mole operation was hugely successful, brought dozens to trial and recovered millions of dollars. The conduit for Pistone was Lefty (Al Pacino), an older wiseguy with whom "Donnie" struck a friendship that grew.
The relations between the two men were initially for their mutual convenience. Donnie needed a sponsor. Lefty needed a protege that might get him out of his low rank in the Mafia. He had been in the underworld for 30 years, had made 26 hits, yet had really nothing to show for all this.
I see the twosome as an ironic (but not so planned) version of new partners in the police force. The younger man hopes to learn. The older one hopes that the team will make an impression on their superiors.
"Donnie Brasco" takes an honorable place among gangsgter movies, specifically within the Mafia sub-genre. The greatest of these are the "Godfather" trilogy and "GoodFellas. " But the differences between them and the new work are numerous, beyond the crucial fact that the earlier films were mostly fiction while the recent one is fact. "The Godfather" was a saga and a grand opera about "capi dei capi," the bosses of bosses, the top echelons. "GoodFellas" was at a lower rung, but even so, its people feel like capitalists compared to the grungy Mafiosi in "Donnie. "
Here we have "soldiers," the day-by-day operators who do the actual, physical dirty work, who have to struggle like laborers to meet their quotas, who are constantly hustling, who fight other lowly Mafiosi over territories and opportunities. Whether among the high ups or the low downs, there is no honor among thieves. But when we watched the grand plans of alliances and treacheries among the CEOs or even the Captains in earlier films, here we see penny-ante activities, street fights instead of championship bouts.
It's all a de-romanticizing, eye-opening and fascinating process. The film is not exciting, since it keeps to a minimum "movie suspense. " This true-to-life nature also gives it a grayness that contrasts with the rainbow colorfulness of its predecessors. Its low-class characters are real, therefore uninteresting. There is no room left to play with the expanded or full personae we found among the Corleones, their subalterns or their successors.
Where the new movie tries to score is with the relationship between Lefty and Donnie. For Lefty, the biological father of an unworthy petty crook and drug addict, Donnie becomes a surrogate son. For Donnie matters are more complex. He starts out as the agent who hoodwinks Lefty and Co. , but over a long period he cannot help developing a weird (or is it, really?) affection for Lefty. There are moral problems here that are unusual in Mafia stories.
The main difficulty, other than maintaining his cover, is that Donnie, married, with children, has to disappear for long stretches and ignore his family life. The effect on his wife and kids is thickly underlined in the movie. So is the fact that after years of being someone else, it is natural for the infiltrator to adopt many attitudes of his companions. Things do rub off. When in one of his rare visits home Donnie-Joe uses the wrong negative in a sentence, his wife reacts with ". . . and to think I married a college man. " From what I was able to find out, the "assimilation" of Donnie is, in the film, made larger than in reality, but then a few creative liberties are unavoidable.
"Donnie Brasco" has an elliptical structure, so that the passage of time was none too clear for me, nor were some sections of the movie. On the other hand, director Mike Newell does a fine job of empathy and of understanding the hoods' mentality and the overall Mafia scene.
Newell is an Englishman who has worked in the UK, the US and New Zealand. His best-known films are "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Enchanted April. " Some eyebrows were raised when he was chosen to make this movie, so different from his familiar, romantic works. The owners of those eyebrows might be reminded that Newell has also directed somber dramas like "Dance With A Stranger" or "The Good Father," and that many of the Hollywood gangster classics were directed by European newcomers, like Fritz Lang.
Performances are what you would expect from the versatile Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, meaning very good. All the trickier too as the protagonists have to stick to just one basic expression. Throughout, Depp's is guarded and Pacino's hangdog-unhappy.
There is violence in the film, notably a startling sequence of pure gore. Yet what, for me, turned out to be the most depressing scene had to do with the FBI. Throughout, the FBI people make trouble for Joe and look villainous. After Pistone's task was accomplished, in an anonymous (hotel?) room and with only the Pistone family present, a couple of bored-looking superiors coldly, perfunctorily award him an FBI medal plus a check for $500, and quickly leave. It's devastating.