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Going undercover deep into the mafia

Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell.

Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Anne Heche, and Samantha Mathis.

Written by Paul Attanasio, Joseph Pistone (book: Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia), and Richard Woodley (book).

By Jonathan Litt
Staff Reporter

Donnie Brasco is the autobiographical account of real-life ex-FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, based on his 1988 book, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. Pistone spent six years undercover in the mob during the late seventies under the alias Donnie Brasco, reaping several hundred convictions as a result of his eventual testimony.

The portrayal of the mob in Donnie Brasco is distinctly unglamorous, and that is what makes it so interesting. Movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas tell grandiose stories of the rise and fall of key figures at the highest levels of the mob, but Donnie Brasco tells the story of the mob equivalent of Willy Loman, a man who, in the words of English director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), "works for a dream all his life but at the end finds all he has is a cheap, gold plated watch."

The Loman figure in this case is Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), the man Pistone (Johnny Depp) befriends and uses as a stepping stone for all his major infiltrations. Lefty is so lonely and eager to become a mentor for someone that he practically falls into Pistone's lap. Pistone, pretending to be a jeweler, proceeds to earn Lefty's trust by convincing him that his newly purchased diamond is actually a fake. Lefty is surprised because he is convinced that the diamond must be real. Lefty doesn't know that his skills of appraisal are equally lacking on humans as they are on diamonds.

But their friendship grows, and soon Lefty "vouches" for Pistone, meaning that Pistone is officially accepted by the various mobster underlings of the local neighborhood. As time passes, the local underlings become more and more important in the overall hierarchy of their organized crime family. Of course, in the mob, the most ambitious members are the ones most willing to kill off their superiors, as happens time and time again throughout Brasco.

Meanwhile, Pistone's marriage starts to fall apart (it does not help that he can't even tell his wife what his job really is), and he becomes more and more emotionally torn between his allegiance to the FBI and his friendship with Lefty. To save his life and his marriage, he knows that he must pull himself out of the job, but he know this will make Lefty a victim of the mafia's strict code of honor. Lefty "vouched" for Pistone, and if Pistone revealed himself as an FBI agent, Lefty would be as good as dead.

Donnie Brasco tells a much more personal story than most mob movies but packs as much of a punch because everything about it seems more realistic. These aren't mobsters who run a gambling empire that span from New York to Las Vegas (a la The Godfather). They are a bunch of wise guys who can hardly start up a nightclub in Miami and have to resort to cracking open parking meters to keep up with their monthly $50,000 payment to the local mob bosses. But the personal relationships and betrayals are as intense as any mob movie in recent history, and that is why Donnie Brasco is as rewarding as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese ever have brought to the screen.