Friday, August 28, 2020

Donnie Brasco: Why I Can’t Fuhgeddaboudit

It’s not 100% correct to say that Donnie Brasco, the 1997 crime thriller I saw last night, haunts my dreams. Still, I woke up this morning realizing that the central strand of the film, which stars Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, had woven its way into my subconscious. I’ve long since come to recognize my basic need to keep writing, no matter what: hence the longevity of this nine-year-old blog. And, especially of late, my dreams have been full of moments in which I’m doing archival research, wrestling with words, and otherwise  making like a writer.

 Donnie Brasco, though, is not about writing at all, except perhaps when we see cryptic messages being tapped out on an old-fashioned typewriter keyboard. Instead, it’s about a murderous Mafia gang, based on the real-life Bonnano crime family that helped to rule New York’s mean streets in the 1970s. Donnie Brasco was real too, sort of. His was the actual nom de guerre of an undercover FBI agent whose mandate was to infiltrate the gang and take it down. As played by Depp, he’s a solemn young fellow who scowls often and has a wicked right hook. He knows the local goombah lingo like a pro, and he seems capable of intense  personal loyalty. All of which helps him to connect with Lefty (Al Pacino), an ageing hitman who’s chafing under the realization that he’ll never be “upped” to a position of power. Lefty takes Donnie, posing as a jewel thief, into his confidence and introduces him to the big boys. Soon Donnie is being pressured on all sides: by the organization, by his FBI bosses, by the suburban wife and kids he keeps carefully hidden. But his personal affection for Lefty and for the thrills of the loud, crude lifestyle that Lefty represents exert a powerful tug.

 So how does this fit into my nocturnal cogitations? Well, in my dream I am (much as I am in real life) a biographer, researching a behind-the-scenes Hollywood personality. I know this guy slightly, and so I hang around, trying to pick up tidbits that will someday be of use. I also take advantage of a passing acquaintance with his ex-wife, all in the service of trying to probe his secrets. Like, for instance, the fact that at a low point in his life he survived by selling genocide insurance (say what?) to elderly Jews fearful of another Holocaust. As a would-be biographer of this man, I am his secret shadow, much as Donnie creates and sustains a deep friendship with Lefty that justifies his covert professional role, but also at times transcends it.

 For the truth of the matter is that Donnie not only likes Lefty; he likes being a Wise Guy. And the Wise Guy persona – pugnacious, brutal, quick on the trigger – is one he comes to adopt more and more in his personal life. So, ultimately, something has to give.

 We’ve all seen our share of Mafia movies: it sometimes seems that every major filmmaker out there tries to put his stamp on the genre. This one, surprisingly, is the work of a British director, Mike Newell, who’s best known for delightful froth like Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s done nicely here: Donnie Brasco is a darkly elegant piece of work. But the heart of the film is doubtless the interplay between Depp and Pacino. Depp’s usual tightly clenched wariness is effective, but it may be Pacino I’ll remember most fondly. Once he was the up-and-coming junior godfather Michael Corleone; now he’s world-weary and unforgettable. Fuhgeddaboudit!




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