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.
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?