Donnie Brasco: The poignant poetry of Al Pacino and Johnny Depp’s soulful performances elevates this gangster drama to a deeply moving Father-son Tragedy

Donnie Brasco(1997), directed by Mike Newell and starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp is a poignant gangster drama that details the true story of working class mafia foot-soldiers in New York as well as the attempts by undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone to infiltrate their organization.

In the 1972 gangster epic, The Godfather, director, Francis Ford Coppola, portrayed the Mafia as a corporation with its own hierarchical structure and rules. The Corleone family was portrayed as a corporation rooted in capitalism – concerned with accumulation of wealth through nefarious businesses like gambling and prostitution- like any other corporation with, first, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and then his son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), as the C.E.O. The film that spawned two sequels portrayed the Corleone family growing from the New York city into a national, and then, an international corporation, with Michael Corleone becoming one of the most richest and powerful men in the world. Michael Corleone was played in the 1972 version by then unknown actor, Al Pacino, who by 1990, when he played the character for the the final time in The Godfather Part III, had become a bonafide movie-star and widely acknowledged acting legend; one of the greatest actors ever to grace stage or screen. Michael is the most intelligent, resourceful , well educated (graduated from Ivy League), cunning, immoral, cold-hearted gangster-general ever portrayed in movies. So it’s almost touching to see Al Pacino- at the age of 57 and now a certified acting maestro- playing a 1970s Mafia foot-soldier Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero from a working class New York neighborhood in the 1997 film Donnie Brasco. Lefty is old, sad, hunched, downbeat and pretty stupid; in short he’s everything that Michael Corleone is not; Michael represents the highest pinnacle of Mafia hierarchy, Lefty represents its lowest point. Michael wears silk suits and cravats, while Lefty wears grotesque looking polyester suits and funny hats. Michael is a man who’s always going forward in life, while Lefty isn’t going anywhere even after being a loyal soldier for 30 years. For 30 years he has been ‘busting his hump’ for the Bonanno mafia family and he has nothing to show for it; just a couple of 100 bucks in his pocket. As he says “even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk if he was busting himself for so long”, he has nothing, and just as in the beginning of his career, he still has to stand freezing on the sidewalks as he awaits the bosses to arrive; hoping, praying that they take notice of him when they pass by and maybe he could get a push up the ladder.

On the other end of the spectrum is actor, Johnny Depp, and the character he plays in the film, FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone. Depp was a hot young actor and fast rising movie star at the time when he starred in this film. Depp became a teenage heartthrob early in his career after starring in the TV series 21 Jump Street. When he graduated to doing movies, he did so by picking quirky, oddball, man-child characters in films by Tim Burton; like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood or other equally eccentric ventures like Don Juan De Marco and The Dead Man. Donnie Brasco is the first fully adult character he has played. Joe Pistone is a fast rising agent in the FB1. when the agency decided to go after the Bonanno family, it was Pistone that they chose for the undercover operation, mainly because of his Italian background. To get inside the Body Mafia and infect it from the inside, Pistone needs a carrier that will take him in, and he zeroes in on the weakest cell of the body, which obviously is Lefty. Lefty by nature, is not very bright, and now with age and disillusionment he’s really slipping. To make contact, Pistone transforms into a jeweler named Donnie Brasco and starts working Lefty’s neighborhood. It’s only a matter of time that Lefty’s eyes would fall on this young, dynamic guy.

The film opens at this point, where we see the predator Donnie sizing up his prey, Lefty, in a little Italy restaurant. Soon, Lefty comes calling to check out the veracity of a diamond he has just bought. Donnie quickly deduces that it’s a fake, and further impresses Lefty by threatening and beating up the diamond dealer who sold him the zirconia set ring. After doing some background checks, where everyone vouches for Donnie’s credibility and resourcefulness, Lefty decides to take him into the family. Now Donnie becomes a ‘Connected guy’, a ‘friend of Lefty’s’ as he takes him around the neighborhood; introduces him to his fellow hoods, including Sonny Black, Nicky, and caporegime Sonny Red; as well as teaches him about the mafia way: the terms, the rules, how to dress, how to address; He takes him into his shabby house where he cooks for him; they exchange cards and money on Christmas; In short, Donnie becomes Lefty’s surrogate son. Lefty’s own son is a drug junkie and you could feel that Donnie is the son that Lefty would have wanted to have. In Donnie he sees a window for a better future, someone who’s young and strong who can do things for him and push him up the Mafia ladder; but in reality he has just taken in the most dangerous virus that’s going to infect him and his mafia family and destroy him forever. As a guy who has brought in Donnie into the family, it’s Lefty who’s going to be killed when Donnie’s cover will be blown. Of the many Mafia terms he teaches Donnie, one that stands out is “I got send for”; which means you go in alive and come out dead and it’s always your best friend who does it (mean kill you). As for Joe\Donnie, the more closer he gets to Lefty, the much better he’s doing his job, but he’s also getting more and more emotionally attached to him and in time would come to genuinely love this sad sack of a man ; so the thought of him becoming the reason for Lefty’s death start tearing him apart, and he finds his loyalties getting divided.

Now the way the Mafia’s hierarchy functions is that if any one in the chain of command gets killed, every body underneath him will move up ahead. So after the family’s street boss is killed, one among the soldiers will be promoted to the position of Skipper. Lefty hopes that it would be him, as he has the age and experience, but to his further disenchantment, the much younger Sonny black is promoted ahead of him to be the new Skipper of the team. Just as in any corporation or family, there are mutual Jealousies, ego-tussles, one-upmanship etc. in the Mafia too. Sonny was actually Lefty’s protégée and under his protection, and this move in the family creates a lifetime of mistrust and discomfort between Lefty and Sonny, with Lefty turning further and further towards Donnie for comfort. Donnie soon starts taking part in Sonny’s Brooklyn operation, which includes shakedowns and hijackings, and soon, is in danger of being swept up in the mafia operations as he increasingly starts behaving like a thug; a particularly unpleasant episode that happens at a Japanese restaurant where Donnie eggs on Sonny and Nicky to beat up the Japanese waiter just so that his cover is not blown shows how much he has come to resemble the gangsters he’s working to expose. Additional pressure comes in the form of FBI supervisor Dean Blandford , who asks Joe\Donnie to incorporate a Miami-based undercover FBI agent, Richie Gazzo, into the Bonannos’ operation. Donnie hates this meddling by bureaucrats but he has no choice but to go along. He takes advantage of the fact that Sonny Black too is disillusioned by his small scale operations and wants to move up to the posh Manhattan neighborhoods controlled by Sonny Red. Donnie easily convinces Sonny Black and crew to move to Miami; but on reaching there, Lefty gets an idea to take over Gazzo’s nightclub, King’s Court. He looks at this as a golden opportunity- his own version of Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas- to cut himself out from under Sonny Black and make a fortune for himself. By allying with Florida mob boss, Trafficante, he believes his future is assured. But like all of Lefty’s plans this one too goes south, as a willy Sonny figures out this plan and crashes the yacht party that Lefty had thrown to impress Trafficante. A heartbroken Lefty can only watch from the sidelines as Sonny not only takes over the his dream nightclub operation, but also claims Donnie for himself as he makes him an unofficial ‘made’ guy to run King’s Court for the family. Thus the Lefty-Donnie-Sonny relationship takes on the dimensions of a twisted love triangle, with a jilted Lefty calling Donnie out for this betrayal and refusing to speak to him anymore.

But everything falls apart on the opening day of the nightclub. Gazzo couldn’t find enough money in the FBI budget to pay off the local cops, so they come in and smash up the place and arrests everyone; Donnie, Sonny, Lefty are all put behind bars. Both Lefty and Sonny suspects that it was Sonny Red who put the cops on them and decides to eliminate his gang, while Sonny Red gets the go ahead from the mob bosses to get rid of Black and his gang. In the ensuing firefight, Red and his gang are killed and Sonny Black becomes the new Street Boss. Meanwhile, Donnie and Lefty has a reconciliation when Donnie stands by Lefty as the latter’s son nearly dies of a drug overdose. Now that the Miami operation is a bust, Donnie and Lefty are together again and they are given the contract to kill Sonny Red’s son, Bruno. But before completing the mission, Donnie’s cover is almost blown when Lefty discovers that the yacht Donnie had arranged for the Trafficante party was owned by the FBI, which is true. Outside the location where Bruno is hiding, Lefty confronts Donnie about his loyalties. At gunpoint, Lefty forces Donnie out to kill Bruno to confirm his loyalties, but before either murder can be committed, FBI agents arrive and apprehend them. As it happens, Donnie had not reported in for several weeks. Ever since the Miami bust Donnie had cut himself loose and he has been looking for ways to secure Lefty; to arrange enough money so that lefty could get out of the Mafia life and settle down somewhere else. But that’s gone now; despite his protestations that he’s not willing to come out of the operation, FBI terminates operation Don Brasco with immediate effect. FBI agents soon move in on Lefty’s gang and the evidence collected by Joe\Donnie leads to more than 200 convictions, thus breaking the back of the Mafia organization. As for Lefty, he is seen getting the most fatal phone call where he gets “send for”. The film ends with Joe Pistone being decorated for his services, but he’s forced to go into hiding as Mafia puts an open contract worth half a million dollars on his head.

There’s an extra dimension to the story regarding Joe Pistone’s personal life; Joe is married with three daughters and his wife, Maggie, does not approve of his undercover job. Repeatedly during the course of his operation, we see Joe returning to his home and in each instance we see his marriage slowly fall apart even further as the feisty, independent Maggie refused to carry on with an absent husband and father (to her children). Joe’s divided loyalties between his job, his life in the Mafia and his real family takes a heavy toll on his mental and physical health; “This job is eating me alive, i can’t breathe“, he says at one point, even as he expresses his moral confusion about the job he’s doing: “All my life I’ve tried to be the good guy, the guy in the white fucking hat. And for what? For nothing. I’m not becoming like them; I am them“. By the end, his relationship with his wife breaks down completely as he finds it impossible to communicate with her. They try counseling to keep their marriage alive, but Donnie, due to his Mafia life experiences, is becoming aggressive and violent in his personal life too, to the point that he physically abuses his wife. Donnie himself is shocked by his behavior and realizes how far he has crossed the line. He promises to get back to her once his work is done, which mainly involves saving Lefty’s life, and he has to save Lefty at any cost because: “if I come out, this guy Lefty dies. They’re gonna kill him because he vouched for me. Because he stood up for me. I live with that every day. That’s the same thing if I put the bullet through his head myself” . Once he fails to do that, he becomes a lost soul. the final image of the film shows him lost, adrift, vacuous, not knowing where to turn, even as his wife begs him: “Come home, honey.” The irony of this whole operation is that Joe is successful in taking down the Mafia and let justice prevail, but in doing so, he and his family gets punished too, as they have to go into hiding.

The greatest Gangster films in the last quarter of the twentieth century has been made by Italians; Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma etc.. it’s understandable because they are so clued into this culture of blood rituals and tribal loyalties . Donnie Brasco is directed by an Englishman, who made Four Weddings and a Funeral before this. How and why he was chosen for the job is a mystery that’s resolved to an extend once we watch the movie. For one, this film is neither operatic nor larger than life like the films made by those Italian Masters. This is fashioned more on the lines of A British Working class drama; there are no stylistic flourishes, no sensationalism, no moments of rousing passion or melodrama or even too much violence. it’s vey much credible and realistic; not exactly down and dirty and grungy like Sidney Lumet’s New York crime dramas, but the sensibility is closer to those films than a Godfather or Goodfellas. The film does opt for a bright, colorful visual palette as opposed to the dark impressionistic feel of The Godfather films or the all out Technicolor bursts of Scorsese\De Palma films. The film doesn’t have much humor either; it’s a very melancholic take on all the Mafia lore; stripping it down of all the glamor, all the fantasy elements to show how dreary, dangerous and ‘not rewarding’ working in the Mafia is. It’s just like the movies, we see the big stars , their glamor and style and gets seduced by that, but the truth is that there a very few like them, majority of the film industry are made up of supporting\bit part actors and technicians who are paid very less and who struggle to make ends meet. The Mafia bosses lead the fantasy life, while for the foot-soldiers it’s a struggle to make it from one day to the next. Mike Newell is very successful in presenting this fact of Mafia life. he is very good at shooting scenes where two or more characters bond through talk, and there’s a lot of talk in the movie. It’s totally devoid of spectacle and relies totally on its actors and words to move the narrative forward. Newell is helped immensely by Paul Attanasio’s terrific script which brings out the internal angst and sadness of these characters. Almost everyone in the film is a tragic character; unhappy, sad and disillusioned with their current status in life. The only time where i felt the film floundered is in showing the initial integration of Donnie into the Mafia. It happens very abruptly; granted Lefty is quite dumb and too eager at this point, but still i thought it wasn’t convincing enough. Perhaps some stuff had to be left on the editing table because of length issues; not much time is spend on exposition as the film dive directly into the middle of the action as Joe begins his operation Donnie Brasco.

But in a film like this, it’s the actors who are the real special effects, and in Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, we have two of the greatest actors from their respective generations working in tandem to bring the film to life. The film has a fine supporting cast of Gangster film regulars like Michael Madsen making a hulking Sonny Black, Bruno Kirby as the funny man of the gang, Nick, and James Russo as Paulie. An unexpected, but welcome support comes from Anne Heche putting up a spirited performance as Maggie, her scenes with Johnny brims with vitality and energy and one wishes she had more to do in this predominantly masculine film. But make no mistake, the film belongs to Pacino and Depp; individually and collectively they work like dynamite. Both are playing deeply melancholic characters in what’s broadly a gangster tragedy. Pacino at this stage was considered an actor who preferred over the top histrionics and volcanic tirades, but this film finds him going back to his 70s roots of understated subtlety. He does indulges in bluster and some over the top antics- like the repeated shrugging of the shoulders or the raising of his voice- from time to time but we see its false bravado to cover up for the character’s inherent weakness; In the most poignant moments , Pacino’s acting becomes almost poetic: take the scene where he realizes that Sonny Black has stolen his dream and also stolen Donnie; he slowly takes out the greeting card that he had plan to give the Mob boss, puts the money in his pocket, tear up the card and throws it away as the tears in his eyes just refuses to come out; or that moment in the hospital when his son is dying and Donnie comes to meet him; It’s a moment of double tragedy for him as he is losing both his sons; his real and his surrogate; he acts like he doesn’t want Donnie there and tries hard to push him away but fails, and then he breaks down as he professes his affection for Donnie. He does a really beautiful thing here, by obscuring his crying by tapping his feet on the ground, thus making the scene dramatic but not melodramatic. Also the scene where he confronts Donnie in the car at the end with the evidence of the FBI yacht. He is on the verge of crying as he puts the gun to his head and he says if Donnie is a rat then he better kills himself because: “If you’re a rat, then I’m the biggest mutt in the history of the Mafia.”. And that’s the tragedy of Lefty, he’s in fact the biggest mutt in the history of the mafia; stupid and slow on the uptake, but warm, emotional, affectionate and caring and Donnie makes full use of all those virtues he possesses. But the Pacino tour de force is his final moment in the film; after he gets “send for”, before going out to his death, he decides to divest himself of all his valuables, which isn’t much: a gold chain, a ring, a watch , some cash, which he puts in a drawer, he shuts it but then keeps it open so that his woman can find it. he kisses his woman goodbye, asking her not to wait up as he will be late to return. For once he is very well dresses, in a suit, a tie and an overcoat, after inspecting the house one last time, he nonchalantly walks out to his death. It’s pure physical acting of highest level, no words spoken, almost like a Mime performance, as he lives out the final moments of his pitiful life. For a moment there Pacino gives Marcel Marceau a run for his money with his performance. Lefty started out with nothing, thirty years later, he ends up with nothing. This single scene- shot with clinical detachment yet brimming with sadness and loss every moment- alone should dissuade young punks thinking of joining the Mafia in the hopes of leading a flashy life.

As for Johnny Depp, an actor of unparalleled poetic beauty and stillness, this is one of his purest and most poetic performances. Depp’s legacy has been clouded by his post Jack Sparrow characters; unlike Al Pacino who has been criticized for externalizing himself too much histrionically and vocally as an actor, Depp has been hiding the pure actor in him under an avalanche of makeup and quirky antics. The first time i saw Depp on screen was in that magnificent performance as What’s eating Gilbert grape , and was totally blown away by it. Here’s an actor who seems to be doing absolutely nothing from moment to moment, but when the film finishes the cumulative effect of his performance hits you so hard, it’s emotionally pulverizing. It’s the same case here with Joe Pistone. For Joe, Donnie Brasco is a character he must embody to get the job done, it’s his mask in a way, and true to its nature he does not show any overt emotions in the character. Johnny’s clean-cut, smooth, stone-faced facial features with slick-black hair has never been put to so much good use as in this character. It’s only when he is with his fellow FBI agents or his family that he strips his mask off and becomes emotional or passionate. And as time goes by, he finds it difficult to do this; like a method actor who gets lost in the part he’s playing, he fails to come out of Donnie’s psyche. And again as in “Gilbert Grape” (also unlike Pacino’s) it’s hard to pin point scenes where he’s brilliant; it’s the cumulative effects of his performance that hits you. A man who becomes increasingly devastated by his divided loyalties as well as being caught between two utterly different worlds- the shift from having to cut corpses with Lefty’s gang and then ending up on the shrink’s couch to save his marriage is quite drastic to say the least, and Johnny’s brilliant portrayal brings conviction to every aspect of this character. Pacino and Depp work together as Marlon Brando and Pacino worked together in The Godfather; each actor giving and taking from the other equally brilliant actor from another generation. Post Scent of a Woman (1992), Pacino has been teaming up with young actors like Sean Penn (in Carlito’s Way), John Cusack (in City Hall) and in the same year he will work with Keanu reeves in The Devil’s Advocate. Each partnership brings something new to Pacino’s performance, and his pairing with Johnny is undeniable the greatest and most potent collaboration from this period. Johnny too was coming off from acting with Marlon Brando in Don Juan De Marco, and he plays of Pacino beautifully. In their scenes together, especially the subtle scenes of ‘filial’ bonding, the film turns into a kind of poetic meditation on father-son relationships. Indeed, the combined effect of their soulful performances elevate this film from a standard gangster drama to a deeply moving tragic love story between a father and son.

2 thoughts on “Donnie Brasco: The poignant poetry of Al Pacino and Johnny Depp’s soulful performances elevates this gangster drama to a deeply moving Father-son Tragedy

  1. Lovely writeup, MANK. Pacino and Depp make a fantastic “father-son” duo and just watching them together is a masterclass. I hadn’t watched this film in a long time, so watched some of the clips while keeping your writeup in mind and I was able to see what you have painstakingly written.

    A couple of years back, I read one of Joe Pistone’s books, “The Way of the Wiseguy” and it was a compelling read on how gangsters operate and his experiences. I think you would like it.

    Liked by 1 person

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