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Film: Donnie Brasco

"When I introduce you, I'm gonna say, 'This is a friend of mine.' That means you're a connected guy. Now if I said instead, this is a friend of ours that would mean you a made guy. A Capiche?"
Lefty

Donnie Brasco is a crime drama staring Al Pacino (Lefty), and Johnny Depp (Donnie) set in the Mafia gangland of 1970's New York. An imposing mafia hit man, one Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero needs some advice on a jewel he as been given as collateral. Nothing here is as it seems: the jewel is a fake, Lefty isn't a made man and the guy giving him advice, expert jewel thief Donnie Brasco, is in truth working deep cover for the FBI.

Donnie works his way into the Bonanno crime family. The relationship between Lefty and Donnie develops. Lefty needs to teach and Donnie needs to learn. He needs to learn the the gruff clipped and coded argot that they speak. He needs to learn about the whole exacting dance of paying tribute and keeping face. And we learn with him. Forgetaboutit!

The rich detail originates in the extraordinary real-life story the film depicts, with first-hand help from the real "Donnie Brasco" note . It is a Dramatization, not a Documentary — the film shuffles and condenses who did what to whom.

Things aren't going well on the home front for either Donnie or Lefty. Lefty has cancer. His son is a junkie. He's forever being passed over for promotion — after thirty years he has no respect. Maybe Donnie can do what he could not do, become a made man.

Donnie is a brilliant undercover agent. A natural actor and a subtle, skilled manipulator. But being under cover means long absences from his family and when he is home, he's not the man he used to be. His wife and kids are extremely unhappy with him. His FBI bosses want to use him for their own ends, not always careful or even interested in his safety. He's getting more from his relationships mobside, particularly with Lefty.

Despite this set-up, the film doesn't choke on unleavened drama. There is a lion's share of offbeat comedy. Pacino and Depp are obviously having a great time with all the snappy back-and-forth.

There is a big problem with being a crook: you work with crooks. The situation heats up. Both men have to make some painful choices.

This film provides examples of:

  • Becoming the Mask: While discovery puts Donnie at risk of being clipped, staying undercover isn't safe either: where does the act end? He identifies with his fatherly mentor, and life makes more sense on the wrong side.
    • The real Joe Pistone mentions this as a case of artistic license. While he had real friendship with Sonny Black, and found the rest of the wiseguys superficially charming, having to deal with their brutality and lack of any basic humanity day in and day out more or less reinforced his negative views of the Mafia.
  • Catch Phrase: "Forgetaboutit!"
  • Cluster F-Bomb
  • Composite Character: Lefty in the movie is a composite of the real Lefty, the real Sonny Black, and several other wiseguys Joe Pistone met during his undercover work.
  • Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster: Lefty draws his life from being a gangster. He's fully signed up to the whole mystique.
    Lefty: "This is my family. More even than my own family."
    • No matter how Lefty feels, events show the trope is ultimately subverted. These gangsters are not always living the high life. These are the guys at street level in a grubby, overlooked corner of the mob world. A visit to a high-class Manhattan nightclub only shows how out-of-place the Brooklyn crew is. Lefty himself has been burned by his own guys for thirty years and had gotten to resent it.
  • Deconstruction: Not only do the book and the film totally deglamorize the nature of organized crime, they make it look boring.
  • Dramatization: The film takes as its starting point the hair-raising exploits of Joseph Pistone, an real life FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family over several years, living the role in deep cover. Who did what, even who lives and dies, was changed around to serve the story. Some characters are Composite Characters.
  • Dramedy: There are many understated comedic moments in the film. And many different kinds of comedy. Sometimes its very verbal, jokes about langauge. Othertimes it is all nonverbal, or situational. Or character driven. As a whole the film is a drama, not a comedy, but it would be a very different film if it stuck to that genre. It's interesting to note that this fairly full-on mob film was directed by one Mike Newell, better known for Four Weddings and a Funeral.
  • 555: Not spoken and not written down, but Joe dials 5-5-5 on a pay phone when trying to call his wife from Miami.
  • Follow in My Footsteps: Lefty needs a son. He needs a son following in his footsteps, to get where he himself wanted to get to. His own son is a junkie. But maybe Donnie can act as a surrogate.
  • Girlfriend in Canada: Donnie tells his mobster buddies that he has a girlfriend "back in California" (because he actually has a wife, and doesn't want to cheat on her). The mobsters buy it hook, line, and sinker, despite never seeing him call, speak of, or show around photos of his alleged girlfriend.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Donnie isn't a nice cop.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Joe Pistone, who went undercover as Donnie Brasco in real life, is no great looker. We get Johnny Depp.
  • I Know You Know I Know: "Listen to me, Donnie. I know you know, all right? And I know you know I know you know." Lefty accuses Donnie of being responsible for his air conditioner being stuck on the coldest setting.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: Donnie is told to prove his trustworthiness by killing the son of an mobster.
  • The Infiltration: This is the prime mover of the story. Donnie must work his way into the mob.
  • Impersonation Gambit: Donnie's in to the Mafia is posing as a jewel thief. In his meticulous preparation he has taken gemology classes, just as the real Pistone did before he went undercover.
  • Last-Second Chance: Just before the FBI swoop in to make the climatic busts, Donnie essentially gives Lefty a chance to walk away and escape the deadly mob consequences of letting in an police undercover agent into their world. Lefty indignantly turns it down and thus faces the expected consequences.
    • The film implies that Lefty was murdered for associating with Donnie. In real life, the FBI arrested Lefty on his way to a meeting in order to keep him from being killed, because Donnie knew exactly what was in store for him. Lefty ultimately died of cancer after serving 11 years in prison.
  • The Mafia: With the real life Donnie Brasco, Joseph Pistone, providing the source book and on-set assistance the movie is packed with detail. The paradoxical world of the Mafia is explored: hierarchy, loyalty, codes of honor. But also harsh penalties for failure or transgression, betrayal, and promotion via dead men's shoes.
  • Married to the Job: Both Donnie and Lefty. Lefty's wife Annette knows better than to get between him and his job. Donnie's wife Maggie bitterly resents it.
  • Mood Whiplash: When we first meet Pistone's wife she and he are fighting about his secrecy and not spending time with his kids. The argument is very heated and even teary. The next scene over they are literally crawling over each other while climbing up the stairs to have sex.
  • Not So Different: Donnie finds himself identifying with Lefty's gang.
  • The Seventies: The setting. And the horrible tracksuit. In the Miami scenes it is odd to think Scarface is only a few years away from coming ashore.
  • Taking the Kids: What Maggie Pistone threatens to do when their marriage hits the rocks.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie purports to be "a true story", and while Joseph Pistone's book memoir was mostly faithful to real events in which he participated, the screenwriters and the director preferred a very wide Artistic License. The movie invents events and characters, removes real ones, turns other FBI personnel into useless fools (one of the clownish characters in the movie was actually an FBI agent posing as a dangerous mob turf boss during the operation), and has Pistone engage in activities that would have sent him to prison in reality. (No, a real-life agent may not legally conspire to commit a murder, nor assault a civilian). Lefty, the movie's faithful friend, was in fact a genuine thug, often despised by Pistone, and many of the positive traits of his movie character were taken from the real-life Sonny Black - the only gangster with whom the real Pistone actually felt some kinship and considered to have a genuinely good side. He, in turn, was of course turned into a Big Bad in the film... with his worst traits actually taken from Pistone's earliest mob mentor, a gangster whose personality was such that he was feared and hated by other gangsters, and eventually went into hiding, knowing that dozens of New York mafiosi had been dreaming of an opportunity to put a bullet in his head for decades. Unsurprisingly, his character is completely absent from the film.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The FBI are being portrayed as just as bad if not worse than the mob. They make it no secret that they enjoy using Joe/Donnie for their ends.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Donnie is absent from his family for many months at a time. His wife's anger over his neglect is coming to a boil. It is digging a pit between him and his daughters.
  • Witness Protection: Where Donnie and his family end up.
  • Worthy Opponent: Many central scenes show Donnie and Lefty sparing. And when Lefty finally accepts the possibility that Donnie is FBI:
    Lefty: "And listen to me, if Donnie calls... , tell him... if it was gonna be anyone, I'm glad it was him. All right?"

The Devil's OwnCreator/Mill Creek EntertainmentThe End of the Affair
The Devil's OwnFilms of the 1990sDoom Runners

alternative title(s): Donnie Brasco
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