Donnie Brasco is a 1997 crime drama staring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, set in the Mafia gangland of 1970s-80s New York. Mafia hitman Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero (Pacino) needs some advice on a jewel he has been given as collateral. Nothing here is as it seems: the jewel is a fake and the guy giving him advice, expert jewel thief Donnie Brasco (Depp), 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 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.
Donnie is a brilliant undercover agent. A natural actor and a subtle, skilled manipulator. But being undercover 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 mob side, particularly with Lefty.
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. For Donnie, it especially applies considering that when the FBI finally makes their move on the mob Donnie has infiltrated, Lefty will pay the price for allowing Donnie to do that.
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. And most notably, Donnie Brasco is directly responsible for codifying one major element of pop culture's Mafia stereotype: the idea that mobsters love to say "Fuhgeddaboudit!"—all the time...in various contexts...with various meanings.
Michael Madsen plays Sonny Black, the boss of Lefty's crew. Bruno Kirby plays Nicky Santora, another member of the crew. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly as an FBI tech. A young Gretchen Mol has a bit part as Sonny's girlfriend.
You wannna buncha Tropes, here? Fuhgeddaboudit:
- 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.
- The '70s: The setting. And the horrible tracksuit. In the Miami scenes it is odd to think Scarface (1983) is only a few years away from coming ashore.
- Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The award ceremony at the end shows Joe Pistone seeming bitter, disconnected, and just going through the motions. In his autobiography, Pistone cites receiving the FBI Director's Award as the proudest moment of his career. This is just the capper on making Pistone a lot more conflicted about his loyalties than he was in real life.
- Alas, Poor Villain: Lefty in the end.
- Artistic License – History:
- Pistone, according to himself, never slapped his wife. The bag of money also never existed.
- Near the end, Lefty gets "sent for" and leaves his valuables behind for his wife, expecting to be killed. In real life, these actions were performed by Sonny Black, who gave his things to his bartender before reporting in and being shot to death. Lefty was sent for, but Pistone arranged for him to be arrested before the Bonannos could kill him.
- Lefty was not the first mobster that Pistone met during the latter's time undercover. Tony Mirra (and several others) came to Pistone before Lefty. It was also Mirra, not Lefty, who tore apart the dashboard in Joe's car looking for "a noise"- in actuality, checking for recording devices.
- Much of Lefty's (good) personality traits in the film actually belonged to Sonny Black in real life.
- The conversation at the pier, where Lefty questions Pistone whether or not he is a cop, also never took place.
- Pistone is frequently shown wearing a tape recorder and a wire. In real life, he generally refused to wear one, because of a clumsy setup by the technicians his first time out which left him wary of ever wearing a wire again, along with the ever-present danger that he might have to stand for a patdown by the wiseguys he was infiltrating. Also, any tape had to be logged as evidence by the FBI and could be brought out at trial, endangering other operations by putting the mobsters on notice that their conversations had been taped, and making them ask, "Taped by who?"
- In the film, Nicky is shot and killed by Lefty for doing an unauthorized drug deal, and also on suspicion that he told the Miami cops about Sonny Black's club to get it raided. The real-life Nicky Santora rose to serve as the underboss of the Bonanno crime family for three years, and died in 2018 at the age of 76.
- 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.
- Bittersweet Ending: Donnie brings in enough intel to convict dozens of Mafia figures and is able to reunite with his family. On the other hand, he clearly feels regret over what he's done in getting so close to Lefty, who is killed because he vouched for Donnie. The end credits reveal that Donnie/Pistone and his family have had to move to an undisclosed location due to the mob putting out a hit on him.
- Boom, Headshot!: How Nicky finishes off Sonny Red during the ambush once the crew returns from Miami, and how Lefty kills Nicky immediately afterward.
- Casting Gag: In The Godfather, Al Pacino played the son of a Mafia kingpin who eventually becomes The Don himself. Here, Pacino's character is about as low down the hierarchy as can be, and struggling just to maintain that place.
- Catchphrase: "Fuhgeddaboudit!"
- Cluster F-Bomb: From pretty much everybody, but Sonny Black is a prime example.
- Composite Character: Lefty in the movie is a composite of the real Lefty, the real Sonny Black, and several other wiseguys 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."
- The trope is played with. A visit to a high-class Manhattan nightclub only shows how out-of-place the Brooklyn crew is.
- Averted in Real Life by the real Joe Pistone, who pointed out that the criminals he worked with lacked anything beyond superficial charm, while the work that they did was brutal and not even slightly tempting.
- The Dead Have Names: An entire conversation. After Nicky gets killed (by Lefty) because Sonny erroneously thinks he's a rat, Lefty says they are no longer to even say his name. Donnie/Joe freaks out at this, screaming "Say his name! Say Nicky!"
- Deconstruction: Not only do the book and the film totally de-glamorize 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, a 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 language. Other times 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.
- Dude, Where's My Respect?:
- Joe Pistone risks his life in the infiltration mission, but he does not get much consideration from his wife, and even the FBI, for that. Somewhat understandable since his family doesn't actually know what he's doing, apart from being on assignment for the FBI.
- Inverted for Lefty. He's been in the Mafia for 30 years and killed 26 people, but the rest of the crew practically ignores him and he gets passed over for promotion in favor of the younger Sonny Black.
- Face Death with Dignity: At the end, Lefty knows he's going to get killed because he brought Donnie (an FBI agent) into the circle. He doesn't panic or try to run away. He just gives one last farewell to his wife, removes anything his murderers would steal, and walks out the door. Cue gunshot.
- 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.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: The real Sonny Black was a much nicer guy than he is depicted in the movie. In fact, a lot of Sonny's good qualities are given to Lefty instead. The former supposedly didn't even hold a grudge against Donnie, while the latter vowed to kill him if it was the last thing he did.
- Hollywood Law: The movie has Pistone engage in activities that would have landed him in prison in reality. Plus, the real life Pistone was given the chance to be a made man by killing off the son of a dead capo, but the FBI pulled the plug before this could happen.
- Hypocritical Heartwarming: During the restaurant scene, everyone is admonishing Donnie for causing a scene and preventing them from eating, with Sonny even threatening to cut his leg off if he doesn't stop, but as soon as Donnie claims that he refuses to take orders from a Japanese because they killed his dad, everyone immediately turns against the Japanese owner and beat him up.
- 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 settingnote .
- If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!: Donnie is ordered to prove his trustworthiness by killing the son of a renegade mobster. The FBI instead decides to terminate the operation at the last hour and arrest the mobsters.
- 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.
- The Infiltration: This is the prime mover of the story. Donnie must work his way into the mob.
- Klingon Promotion: The classical way to advance your career in the mafia. In the beginning, the Bonanno family's street boss is killed and Sonny Black gets promoted. In the end, Sonny Black kills Sonny Red and he gets his job.
- 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 a police undercover agent into their world. Lefty indignantly turns it down and chooses to face the expected consequences.
- The film implies that Lefty was murdered for associating with Donnie. In reality, 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. He got a 15-year prison sentence, was released after 11 years because he had terminal cancer, and died in 1994.
- Like a Son to Me: Lefty begins to see Donnie as his surrogate son, especially since his real son is a junkie.
- 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. In fact, the movie deconstructs the glamour surrounding the mob.
- Manly Facial Hair: Donnie starts off with a healthy mustache, but Lefty makes him shave it off as part of the Mafia code of conduct.
- 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.
- Mirroring Factions: The FBI is equally corrupt as the mob since they blatantly make it obvious to Donnie they're simply using him for their own ends.
- Mood Whiplash: When we first meet Pistone's wife, both of them 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.
- There's also the scene where Lefty is convinced he's going to get whacked. He and his fellow mobsters go into a pitch black warehouse, and when they turn on the light, a caged lion is revealed, scaring the crap out of Lefty. It's a present for him, and he was never going to get whacked.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Poor Mr. Moto.
- Oh, Crap!: Sonny Red and his guys upon realizing they've been outsmarted and ambushed by Sonny Black and his gang.
Donnie: You think I’m a fucking rat?
- Also the moment towards the end when it appears that Lefty has figured out that Donnie is an undercover agent.
Lefty: How many times I have you into my own house?
Donnie: Twice a week. Twice a week, at least.
Lefty: There it is. “At least.” I cook for you.
Lefty: If ever I had any money, I’d give you... I never had any money. But if ever I had a hundred bucks in my pocket, I'd give you fifty, right?
Donnie: Yeah, you did.
Lefty: If you’re a rat... If you’re a rat, then I’m the biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia.
- Planet of Steves: A large number of mobsters share the same name and can only be distinguished by a nickname, such as Sonny Red, Sonny Black, etc. Lampshaded in a scene where the FBI agents are discussing the relationships between the various criminals and can't keep them straight. This was very much Truth in Television.
- Price on Their Head: The epilogue reveals that the Mafia put a $500,000 contract on Pistone's life. (It was later rescinded after the FBI advised them not to kill him.)
- Real Men Cook: Lefty personally prepares a coq au vin for Christmas. His wife Annette explains that she can't "cook special" like him and Lefty adds that "Everywhere you go, the best cooks are men".
- Reliably Unreliable Guns: During the murder of Sonny Red and his guys, Lefty's shotgun jams and he has to bang it against a counter in order to break it open for reloading.
- Seinfeldian Conversation: Lefty arguing with other gangsters in the beginning over whether a Lincoln's better than a Cadillac; the FBI agents in the motel room discussing the meaning of "fuhgeddaboudit".
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Sonny Black's crew uses these to kill Sonny Red and his associates (a pump model for Nicky, sawed-off double-barreled guns for the others).
- Small Name, Big Ego: Lefty brags about being known in every borough of New York and all over the world, but in reality he's just a low-level soldier and hitman in the Bonanno family. He barely gets any respect from the other members of his own crew.
- 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 thrown him to prison in reality (being that he was of Sicilian and Calabrian heritage, Pistone was offered the chance to be made by killing off the son of a deceased capo but the FBI pulled the plug before this could happen). 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 Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano - 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 Anthony Mirra, a gangster whose personality was such that he was widely loathed by other gangsters, but eventually went into hiding, knowing that he was a marked man. Unsurprisingly, his character is completely absent from the film.
- Wet Blanket Wife: Pistone's wife would like him to spend more time with his family. She complains that he is always absent.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The FBI is shown to be equally corrupt and bad as the mob since they make it no secret they're simply 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 verbally sparring. 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?"