Published March 1, 1997
In Donnie Brasco, based, as it is at pains to remind you, on a true story, Mike Newell and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, set up a highly interesting conflict with a great deal of skill and then simply slither out of it at the end, leaving the issues they raise unresolved. The excuse for this is, presumably, that it is based on truth and so they could hardly alter the ending, or make real events more dramatic. But although real life people can retreat from the moral dilemmas, or find various sorts of intellectually unsatisfying accommodations with them, a film maker is subject to a stricter imperative. Resolution of his conflicts is not a distant goal but an ever present necessity. He cannot avoid it without fatally damaging his film.
“Donnie Brasco” , real name Joe Pistone (Johnnie Depp), is an FBI agent who infiltrates the Italian underworld of Brooklyn and Queens, so familiar to us from so many previous, ever less romanticized films from The Godfather to Goodfellas. By the time we get to Donnie Brasco the mob has lost virtually all its glamor. Pistone gets himself into a position of trust with an “organized crime” syndicate which is actually a bunch of small-time hoods who spend most of their time “boosting” steak knives and razor blades, or taking the coins out of parking meters. His entré into the mob is “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a sad little man who spends his free time watching nature documentaries on TV (he has a fascination with big beasts of prey) in a sweat suit. He is divorced, says he has “cancer of the prick” and complains that his ex-wife lives in the same building. He lives with a woman named Annette, of whom he appears to be genuinely fond, and his adult son, who is a heroin addict.
The chemistry between Depp and Pacino is the best thing about the film and is by itself enough to make it worth the price of admission. “Donnie” becomes like a son to “Lefty,” who instructs him in the subculture of the mafia (if that is not too grand a name for it). “I’m your guy,” says Lefty. “No one can touch you. Jesus Christ couldn’t touch you. I die with you.” Donnie in turn finds himself growing attached to this sweet and rather pathetic older man, who is a multiple murderer by his own account. So much so, indeed, that he begins to lose track of his identity as “Joe” and to take on in earnest that of “Donnie.” At one point when he is fighting with his neglected wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), she accuses him of becoming “like them.” Striking her, he replies: “I’m not becoming like them, Maggie. I am them.”
All this builds up to the film’s central moral dilemma, which is Joe/Donnie’s realization that, for his FBI mission to be successful, he will have to reveal his true identity, and so condemn his mob sponsor, Lefty, to certain death. But Newell/Attanasio leave this terrible moral dilemma unresolved by taking the choice out of his hands. Both Donnie and Lefty are arrested just as they are about to assassinate a rival gang member and Donnie is forced by the FBI to terminate his undercover operation. Two of his FBI colleagues go round to the little bar where these guys hang out and inform them of the true identity of “Donnie.” Lefty and the boss, Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), talk it over afterwards and agree that this is just not possible. “He almost had me going, there,” says Sonny.
It is one of a succession of wonderful moments which make this a terrific cinematic experience in spite of its conceptual flaws. Perhaps my favorite comes when Donnie/Joe comes home too late for his daughter’s first communion. Not knowing what else to do, he wakes her up and asks her to repeat her catechism. His question, “Who made you?” and its reply “God made me,” is a natural reminder of all the mob’s talk of being a “made” guy—a point to which Donnie himself has almost arrived when he has to quit. For just an instant, Daddy’s identity crisis is something much bigger and more important than the tired old work/family conflict that it sometimes seems to become. Again and again the film bounces up like this, toward real epiphany, but it can’t quite stay up there. Go see it anyway. It’s better than anything else on offer from the dream factory.