Screenplay : Paul Attanasio (based on the book by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Al Pacino (Lefty Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone), Michael Madsen (Sonny Black), Bruno Kirby (Nicky), James Russo (Paulie), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone)
If "The Godfather" glamorized Mafia life by elevating it to the highest rungs of romanticized pulp fiction, then "Donnie Brasco" drags it back down to the lowest rungs of gritty reality.
This stunning film tells the amazing story of Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), an FBI agent who spent almost six years -- from 1976 to 1981 -- working undercover in the New York Mafia under the alias Donnie Brasco. He worked his way into the Bonanno Family by gaining the trust and admiration of Lefty Riggiero (Al Pacino), an aging Mafioso who had hit his peak and was in slow decline. Pistone was so good at his job, that the members of the Mafia still couldn't convince themselves he was undercover cop even after they had obtained pictures of him graduating from the FBI Academy.
What would it be like to be working undercover in the Mafia? How would it feel to assume another name and identity, and convince an entire group of seasoned Mafiosos that you are someone else, someone they can trust? These are questions you find yourself asking a lot during "Donnie Brasco," and the answers the film gives you leave a very uncomfortable feeling.
One the things "Donnie Brasco" does magnificently is create a palpable sense of tension. Pistone is constantly in danger on two fronts: first, the general dangers of life in the mob, and secondly, the fact that he is an undercover FBI agent, always in danger of being discovered. There are several wrenching sequences when someone or something is threatening to blow his cover, but because Pistone was quick-witted and clever, he always managed to slip by. One scene takes place in an airport where Pistone runs into a familiar district attorney who starts calling him by his real name in front of his mob associates. I won't say how he gets out of the situation, but it's smooth and resourceful, and also very funny.
Central to "Donnie Brasco" are the two performances by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, and they are both outstanding. With his salty, understated performance, Pacino reminds us of what an indelible actor he is, and how he can literally disappear into a character. Although Pacino has starred in numerous Mafia and crime films before, he's never played a character like this one. His Lefty is an aging and bitter man, diagnosed with cancer and constantly complaining how everyone around him is being promoted while he remains static. "I have twenty-six hits under my belt, and for what?" he complains. This is not Michael Corleone, and it's not Tony "Scarface" Montana. Lefty is a loser who could only make it so far, and he sees Donnie Brasco as a chance to reinvent himself as a mentor and father-figure.
Matching Pacino scene-for-scene is Johnny Depp in his best performance to date. This is new and dangerous territory for Depp to be treading, but he pulls it off perfectly. With this film, he has graduated from smaller, quirky roles like those he perfected in "Cry-Baby," "Edward Scissorhands," and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Here he shows the merit of a top actor; he's utterly convincing as a man pretending to be someone else. He knows his stuff, and one of the film's most interesting and also humorous scenes has him explaining to a couple of FBI workers how varying vocal inflections can make the oft-used Mafia phrase "Forget about it" carry a dozen different meanings.
"Donnie Brasco" was directed with a sure hand by British director Mike Newell from a screenplay by Paul Attansio ("Quiz Show") based on Pistone's 1989 memoir. Newell's most successful film was 1993's "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and while he may seem like an odd choice for a Mafia film, he's actually perfect because he brings a much-needed foreign view to a well-worn American tradition, the same view John Schlesinger brought to "Midnight Cowboy" (1969). He makes the old seen new.
Like Martin Scorsese's fiery "GoodFellas," "Donnie Brasco" gives an insider's feel to Mafia life, with all its quirks, moments of sudden and graphic violence, and off-kilter humor. The Mafiosos in this film don't spend their time in tuxedos in golden-lit offices with walnut paneling -- they wear sport jackets and fedoras and spend their time in small clubs and back rooms, doing anything and everything to make money, move up the ladder, and evade death at every corner.
But the real story in "Donnie Brasco" is the relationship between Pistone and Lefty. Lefty always makes it clear that he is putting his life on the line to represent Pistone, so there is a natural tendency for Pistone to feel guilty about stabbing his mentor in the back. The central conflict is how Pistone can work in these intimate relations without becoming too ensnared in them.
The movie recalls the great line from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter": "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true." Pistone's work ultimately begins to affect him, and almost brings his relationship with his wife (Anne Heche) to ruin. Gone for weeks at a time and unable to talk about what he does, there was no way he could be an effective husband or father to his three daughters. When his wife angrily tells him that he's becoming like one of the mob, he replies, "I'm not becoming like them. I am them."
Powerful, driving, incisive and fascinating, "Donnie Brasco" paints a convincing portrait of a man's life undercover. In some ways it is a sad film because it sees the humanity beneath the Mafia codes, and how good men can be twisted and ensnared into an evil life. It refuses to see anything in simple terms, and that is where most of the film's impact resides.
©1997 James Kendrick