Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)

09Apr11

Al Pacino (Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Sonny Black), Bruno Kirby (Nicky). Screenplay by Paul Attanasio. Rating: 18. Running time: 120 minutes.

If I am right in thinking the term ‘one trick pony’ somehow lingers in the air of discussions about Al Pacino, it’s necessary to begin a look at Donnie Brasco by dispelling this myth once and for all. That he has favoured the crime genre is clear, but to claim that all of his characters are even remotely similar would be fantastic. His role here as mafia soldier Lefty Ruggiero, a made man in the Bonnano crime family, makes Michael Corleone feel a thousand years away, and to have this performance sandwiched between his work as Vincent Hanna in Heat and Lowell Bergman in The Insider is simply stunning. He rules the show and gives us another contender for his finest hour, with Johnny Depp more than holding his own along the way.

This is primarily what works so well in Donnie Brasco: the acting is simply as good as it gets, and it’s crucial because this isn’t a style-fest a la GoodFellas. It’s a relatively straight forward drama-piece whose success hinges on its portrayal of relationships. Wiseguy vocabulary and casual killings may be ever-present, but the focus is undoubtedly the dynamics between this old, stagnant hand in the Bonnano family, looking to impress, and the connected guy he takes under his wing, who’s in fact an FBI agent soon to become an undercover legend.

The fact that what we see is largely true is the second source of fascination. The film is very watchable, but it’s also outrageous to observe its events in the knowledge that Donnie Brasco is, in fact, Joseph Pistone. The aim was to mildly disrupt some petty New York racketeering, but five years of work culminates in the absolute trust and infiltration of the peaks of the Mafia’s hierarchy. He tries to act as a husband and father whilst living and breathing with coldblooded murderers and thieves. The FBI started to fear he would be killed not for being exposed as a mole, but because rival families would genuinely believe he was one of them.

I’m a little shaken by whatever moral principles the US Police Department works upon. Henry Hill’s exemption from prosecution may have ensured he worked to get others like him locked up, but it also meant he largely got away with a life of despicable free-riding on the institutions of society. The problem’s a little different here. It’s hard to understand how anyone except a Platonic guardian machine of a man could live a life of such schizophrenia and deception for the sake of his society’s security, but even once that’s taken as somehow possible, and his personal sacrifice as given, the question arises as to the nobility of his means. To prevent a wire being exposed in his boots when being asked to eat in a Japanese restaurant barefooted, Pistone had to give a bullshit story about him refusing to accept orders from a man whose nation is responsible for his growing up as an orphan. The wiseguys duly beat the waiter within an inch of his life, and Pistone joined in to avoid looking suspicious, in the name not only of protecting his own life, but apparently for the sake of ‘law enforcement.’

This is the tension underlying the information preceding the closing credits of Donnie Brasco. Pistone’s work secured over one hundred convictions, but the path to get there was a long and messy one. That it didn’t destroy his own life is a miracle. That it makes one hell of a story is not in doubt.

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