Scorsese and the Cohen Brothers released Goodfellas and Miller’s Crossing, respectively, in September of 1990, serving as harbingers for the quality of crime dramas that would permeate the decade. With young directors exploding on the scene, breathing new life into the genre, and holding their own with the older cinema vanguard, a nimiety of mob films spilled out of theaters and overflowed video stores – making it easy to have overlooked or underappreciated some of the films that genuinely got it right. One such film is Donnie Brasco.
As with Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco is based on a true story about real life men entrenched in the mafia, but beyond that, the similarities and style of the two films are vastly different – from the pacing, to the use of music, the class of the criminals and how loyalty is dealt with within their own ranks. Based on the book of real life under-cover-agent Joe Pistone (Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia), and nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by Paul Attanasio, Johnny Depp infiltrates the mob as the title character – “He’s a jewel guy.”
Donnie is taken under the wing of Lefty (a nuanced performance that has aged impressively well from Al Pacino), a mid-level gangster in a blue-collar mafia crew that grinds out small time, smash and grab, strong arm robberies – with none of the skillfully calculated business enterprise of the Godfather films. They’re not above nicking parking meters to keep the heat on. Pacino’s Lefty shares a small apartment with his girlfriend and junkie son, the kind that has VHS tapes next to the television set in cardboard boxes, and an Archie Bunker style chair with a TV tray for a simple man to enjoy his simple pleasures. In Brasco, you won’t find any lake house in Tahoe for Lefty, although he certainly aspires to that kind of life.
Lefty serves as a mentor to Donnie, telling him that he’s going to “school” him on the ways of the wise guy (a kind of Zen and the Art of…), “Wise guys never pay for a drink. Always on the arm.” “Wise guys always right, even when he’s wrong.” “Wise guys don’t work on Mother’s Day!” And maybe the most important of them all – “When you get sent for, you go.” Donnie wisely does more listening than talking, which gives Depp’s performance something to build off of, as his ever-watching, soulful eyes take everything in and he’s pushed to his breaking point. The FBI doesn’t appreciate the stakes of the game he’s playing in or the stress he’s under, and become increasingly more demanding and less empathetic. The only person who seems to have his back is Lefty, since Donnie can’t divulge too much of his shadow life with his wife.
Caught up in the subterfuge of his role in the mob, Donnie begins drifting away from his responsibilities at home, with no explanation of his double life. Anne Heche is fierce as Maggie, Donnie’s wife that is trying to hold everything together, while trying not to hate the man her husband is becoming – as he neglects her and their daughters. It’s a performance and role we would’ve liked to have seen more of. “Your’e becoming just like them,” an emotionally exhausted Maggie tells her husband. “I’m not becoming ‘like them,’ Maggie, I am them.” Despite a stout resume that displayed a wide range of roles, it’s Depp’s Donnie Brasco that proved he was an actor’s actor. There are no Ed Woodian horse teeth, or teased up hair and scissor hands to embellish his character – just the tape recorder he hides in his boot, and the leather jacket he wears to fit in with the crew that accepts him as one of their own. It’s an acceptance that Donnie earns while playing the long game. Donnie’s patient. He’s not too pushy and he doesn’t ask too many questions. For Donnie, the best talker is a good listener, and Lefty needs somebody to listen to him – “I got cancer of the prick.”
Pacino, like a great magician, sets us up with misdirection in his creation of Lefty, showing us a committed, tough (albeit flawed), cocksure wise guy, who lives by a set credo of rules, and then pulls back the curtain to reveal a Willy Loman character that’s failed in the capitalism hierarchy of his mob world – “Thirty years I’m busting my hump. What’ve I got?” Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman and Pacino’s Lefty both subscribed to a belief that if you’re likeable and you keep punching the clock, eventually you’ll be recognized and all will be made right. Willy and Lefty both seek a world of opulence and the ability to provide for their families, while stretching themselves well beyond their financial means. In Salesman, Willy tells his son Biff that all you need is some luck and “a smile and a shoe shine.” Not the best career advice, and a lot of what Lefty tells Donnie begins to ring hollow, as Pacino grows increasingly frustrated with his getting past over in the mob ranks, losing faith in the system he has so faithfully served.
Michael Madsen keeps everyone on edge as Sonny Black, a kind of mob manager that must make sure his (wise) guys are coming up with enough kick back “vig” to keep the mob men up the ladder happy. Sonny is ambitious in a way that Lefty never was, choosing to go after what he feels he deserves, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in the process – helping to carry out the day to day crimes that keeps the money coming in. Sonny believes that Donnie might be onto something with the prospect of switching coasts and doing business in Florida. A move prompted by Donnie’s FBI bosses to utilize an undercover man they already have in place out there. Donnie’s loyalty is shuttlecocked between Lefty, Sonny Black and the FBI, but as the stakes are raised, so too is Donnie’s exposure, as he wrestles with the morality of turning Judas and “ratting” out his mob crew – a death sentence for Lefty. It’s a burden that Donnie can barely carry and Depp finds another gear to keep it all simmering below the surface.
As Lefty starts to suspect that something is rotten in Denmark, he loses his equilibrium and is mired in conflicting emotions, that belies his black and white mob ethics. Lefty realizes that whatever he was going to become has long since passed him by, and for Donnie, the young man he wished he’d raised instead of his junkie son, there’s a chance for his young protégé to become the man he wished he had become, instead of the man he is. Brasco is a film that when seen more than once, can be experienced separately through the eyes of both Donnie and Lefty.
Pacino’s fellow foot soldiers, Nicky (Bruno Kirby) and Paulie (James Russo), are an excellent fit as “spokes” in the crime wheel. Director Mike Newell paces the film with confidence, often finding moments of comedy, such as Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson in small roles as FBI Technicians, asking Donnie about the correct usage of the word “Fuhgeddaboutit!” In Donnie Brasco there are no paid off politicians to look the other way while a steady stream of cash comes in from drugs, gambling or some other vice controlled by a cunning mastermind in a silk suit. No, in this film the mobsters are working class stiffs out on the street, humping a 40 hour a week job, no different than working in a textile mill – except they’re criminals. What makes Donnie Brasco stand out from so many movies that have thrown their hat in the mob (pinky) ring, is that for Donnie and Lefty, the currency they deal in is friendship and the real crime that’s committed is betrayal.