Overlooked & Underseen: Donnie Brasco (1997)
“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.”
Once upon a time, before they pretty much became caricatures of themselves, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp were both really good actors. Now, you older folks are probably saying, “Of course, Pacino made good movies, are you kidding me?!” Well, sure he has, but to quote Miss Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?” For me, Donnie Brasco is one of the last great movies from either men and it’s one that deserves to be watched.
Based on the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley, the film looks at the real life of FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone and his undercover work within the New York City Mafia in the 1970s. Pistone (Depp), going by the name Donnie “The Jewel Man” Brasco, manages to infiltrate the gang by way of the long-in-the-tooth mafia guy “Lefty” (Pacino). The two become really close as the months go on. Lefty teaches Donnie the ropes of Mafia life and all the rules it entails. The longer the case goes on, the more attached Donnie becomes to Lefty and his way of life.
Agent Pistone has a wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), and three young daughters at home. He doesn’t see them very much because he lives the life of Donnie 24/7. Maggie has grown resentful of her husband because he comes in and out of their lives without warning and usually turns it upside down. Maggie knows nothing about what kind of case Pistone is working for “her own protection.” She begs him to tell her anything but he refuses, their marriage crumbling before them.
There are a lot of beefs and jealousy going on within the Mafia factions. Two of Lefty’s bosses are killed and his “good friend” Sonny Black (Michael Madsen) eventually becomes in charge of their borough. Lefty feels resentment because, not only did he take care of Sonny when he was in jail, he also feels like he should’ve got the shot to be the boss. He complains about it to Donnie, telling him not to trust anyone. On a trip to Miami (set up by the Feds to jump start their surveillance down there), Lefty realizes he’s losing his hold on Donnie to Sonny. He considers Donnie his family almost more so than his real life wife and grown junkie son. He knows it’s a matter of time before Donnie is lost to him forever.
Donnie starts to lose himself completely in his involvement with his Mafia family. Although, he doesn’t actually kill anyone, he certainly takes part in several things that are illegal, including the brutal beating of a Japanese host of a restaurant; the host asked everyone to remove their shoes which Donnie couldn’t remove because that’s where his wire was located. Rather than be found out and killed, he throws several racists words at the host and the entire group takes part in beating this innocent man up. Pistone becomes so entrenched he eventually stops checking in with his handlers and the FBI turns to Agent Pistone’s wife for help. They have no idea where he is and they want to pull him out.
Pacino’s portrayal of “Lefty” is really layered. On the surface, he just seems like he’s playing the character as his usual bombastic self, but look closer. Pacino is doing some really nice work here. Lefty is many things, including proud and scared shitless of dying and of losing Donnie. Sometimes, it’s just all in Pacino’s eyes. His body is doing one thing but his eyes are showing us what’s really going on inside. And that scene toward the end, you know it (or you will know it) just fucking kills me. Depp’s work here is great, too. He’s basically got to be two different characters in this film, Pistone and Brasco. He does a fine job here trying to keep up with Pacino. To me, it’s just about the best work he’s put on film. Heche doesn’t have a big role here but she’s wonderful, too. Bruno Kirby and James Russo are part of Madsen’s crew and deserve recognition, too. Tim Blake Nelson and Paul Giamatti show up briefly as part of the FBI’s surveillance team. There isn’t a bad performance in the bunch.
Director Mike Newell Newell, probably best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, manages to pull off a great gangster movie. You might not think him capable by looking through his filmography but this movie is the real deal. The adapted screenplay, by Paul Attanasio, was nominated for an Academy Award. The music, especially the soundtrack, is awesome. This movie might not have the flash that something like Goodfellas has but that’s okay, it doesn’t need it. With Pacino leading the way, this movie is a quiet character study of two men who live by opposing codes and how they grow to love each other like father and son.