Re-Watchterpiece Theater: Donnie Brasco (1997)

A few weeks ago, I introduced Re-Watchterpiece Theater, a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Today, I’m going to discuss Donnie Brasco (1997), Mike Newell’s biopic about the life and times of Joe Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco), an FBI agent who infiltrated the mafia and helped bring about a flurry of convictions.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The first viewing
I first saw Donnie Brasco in 1997 when I was a college senior. It was part of an upper level sociology course, “Crime, Deviance, and Law”. There were two reasons the professor asked us to watch the film. First and foremost, he wanted to illustrate the way in which criminal organizations have unique social norms, mores, and methods for the inculcation of values. This includes language and behavior. Additionally, he wanted us to watch it teach us about “participant observation” and the danger of “going native”, so to speak. If someone wanted to learn a great deal about a certain culture, one way to do so would be to completely immerse themselves into the culture, adopting language, behavior, dress, and moral codes. However, the danger with such a methodology is that the observer may “go native”- the person ceases to be an observer and becomes a very active participant, thereby losing impartiality in any conclusions made about these cultures.

Having disposed of the fun stuff- the weighty sociological concepts- let’s begin discussing the film. When I saw it in 1997, the first aspect- “going natve”- resonated with me a little bit. There was a very clear beginning of the film where Depp was “Joe Pistone”, and a very clear end of the film where he had become “Donnie ‘The Jeweler’ Brasco”. But the other aspect- the language, behavior, and norms of criminal organizations- was the big take-away for me from the film. It registered a grin on my face the exact moment that Donnie the Jeweler began waxing poetic about fugazies. This continued throughout the film. In one scene, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), details the difference between the phrases “a friend of mine” and “a friend of ours”. He discusses how certain members of the organization must be paid; that respect must be shown at all times to other members of the organization; and that there’s a very clear pecking order and way to do things. Later, we see what Donnie has learned towards the beginning of the third act when he describes the multiple meanings of the phrase “fuggedaboutit” to his FBI peers (surprise: played by Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson, both in the infancy of their careers). In short, Ruggiero doles out  a sociology lesson to Pistone/Donnie while mentoring him in his rise into the ranks, and Donnie eats it up.

The Re-Watch
Surprisingly, the “going native” aspect really wasn’t anything new to me when I re-watched the film. But- and this is the fun part that will make a sociology geek smile- I’m calling it something else now. It’s called “a character arc”. I’ve adopted the language and norms and mores of harcore film fans, just as Joe Pistone adopted the language of organized crime en route to his transformation to “Donnie Brasco”. I noticed the character arc a great deal more this time. I noticed the way that Pistone changed. Early in the film, he would call his wife as she slept in the hopes of having the phone placed next to her. He wanted to hear her sleep. As the film develops, his relationship gradually turned to mush. He became increasingly violent in his personal life, residue from his time around organized crime and his more active role in the mafia. Joe Pistone metamporphosed ino Donnie ‘The Jeweler’ Brasco. He “went native”.

Contrarily, the other lesson- the mafia zeitgeist that Donnie had to absorb- was second-hand to me. And this allowed me to focus on other aspects. When I was 21, the first time I saw this film, I never would’ve stopped to think about the incredibly clever exposure of Lefty’s character flaw early in the film. In one of the first scenes, he meets Joe/Donnie and is unable to tell the fugazi (the fake, or fake gem) from the real thing. I go bananas when screenwriters bury things like this inside of their scripts. Lefty’s character flaw was that he couldn’t tell the fake from the real thing. In the first instance, it’s a gem that exposes his flaw. But in the course of the film, it’s Joe Pistone- Donnie Brasco- that Lefty can’t identify as a false mobster, and it leads to Lefty’s downfall. This, despite a flood of signs around Donnie indicating that he was not what Lefty thought he was.

Essentially, because of the way I was asked to watch the film the first time (keeping in mind Donnie’s process of “going native” and his inculcation of organized crime values), I had inadvertently absorbed a lot of aspects of the film already. As a result, the re-watch didn’t add much to my enjoyment of it. That is to say, I already enjoyed it a great deal the first time and the re-watch only served to bolster my opinion about the film. I may have used different logic to arrive there, but whatever logic I used led me to the same place.

Based on my first watch in 1997, I had given this sociologist’s dream of a film 4 stars out of 5. Having seen it again, I still think it’s a 4 star (out of 5) film. Was it a good movie?


18 Comments

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18 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: Donnie Brasco (1997)

  1. That was a brilliant and well put together read John.

    So different from what I usually expect when I pop over for my lunch time rounds. Where’s my slapstick graphic? My drink spitting humour? I feel robbed!!

    I jest of course. Its great to look at things from different perspectives. I know we still see ourselves as the same person we were in our twenties, I definitely do, but life changes our view point so subtly that we don’t notice the change.

    I would love to have a go at one of these, as an experiment.

    Thanks for inspiring me (again)

    • Thanks much, sir. This may be a series that I revisit often, because I’ve gotten in the habit of watching things I’ve already seen. For instance, sometime this week I’ll be getting “Three Amigos” from Netflix. Now… I don’t think “Three Amigos” is really worth a “Re-Watchterpiece Theater” type of thing, but I last saw it when I was 10 years old. Surely I’m going to get new and different things out of that movie.

      • What amazes me is how much of old films you remember.

        You may have seen that a few weekends ago we started to show our girls films that we loved as kids. I still knew all the words to Labyrinth!! Crazy!

        Ha Three Amigos? There is a big spread in this months EMPIRE, with a graphic reminding us how to do the move….Actually it reminds me of your photoshop work!!

  2. “Lefty’s character flaw was that he couldn’t tell the fake from the real thing.”

    I can’t believe I didn’t catch this the first time I saw it! Thanks for pointing out that little brilliant observation.

    • Big tip o’ the cap to the screenwriter on that. I love it when they do things like that. If you look for them, they’re there.

    • Kelly

      I was thinking the exact same thing. This is one of my top 10 all-time favorites, and one of my top 3 favorite films Depp films, so I’ve seen it too many times to notice your extremely interesting, alternate point-of-view.

      • It was refreshing for me to not watch it with Professor Ken Muse lurking over my shoulder. Well… the whole class’ shoulders.

  3. Cool. I like this series so far, and now I need to re-watchterpiece Donnie Brasco. When I first saw it, just after it hit DVD, I had just finished reading the book a few days before. I was, not too surprisingly, a bit disappointed in the movie. I enjoyed it well enough, but there was much changed from the book (this happens a lot and doesn’t bother me too often) which was still pretty fresh in my mind. I think now, with a lot of time in between to forget those details, I’m sure I’d love this movie as much as I expected to on that first go ’round.

    • I’m fascinated by the whole story. There was a PBS Secrets of the Dead about when they found the corpses of… well, pretty much the entire cast, minus Pistone, and it was amazing. Too bad it was only an hour long.

  4. rtm

    I’ve never seen this one so I’m afraid I don’t have anything to add to the discussion. But that animated photo of Depp is great, did you make that John?

  5. Sweet, sweet post about what’s always been an underrated flick (though not a classic, even for the great perfs by the leads – something that gets forgotten when discussing Pacino’s post-Heat career). Love the analogy of the film’s arc and yours as a film watcher.

    On a shallower note, anyone else catch that GTA: Vice City was a direct rip of Donnie Brasco?

    • I haven’t played the game but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least by that. Mafia movies are fertile territory for video game crossovers. I know because I’m a mafia movie junkie.

  6. Dan

    Nice post. I feel like Donnie Brasco is a movie that a lot of film lovers forget, especially when considering the career bests of Depp and Pacino. And you make a really interesting point about the fake diamond at the start. I also hadn’t considered how easily it shifts to his mistake about Pistone. Brilliant!

  7. Pingback: Movies I’ve Seen in Classrooms |

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