Some of the greatest performances by actors are made great by their electrifying relationships – on stage or on screen – with others. The idea of the ensemble is an honored one in the history of theater and film, and an ensemble can be made up of just two actors. In the case of the 1997 film Donnie Brasco, those two are Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
This Mike Newell-directed film is a very well-designed Mafia/gangster pic, shot in New York City and Miami. It has a look with which we’ve grown familiar: the lower west side of Manhattan, with its pot-holed streets, crumbling warehouse buildings, and narrow views of the dirty Hudson River and its long-abandoned wharves. It is also cold in this environment, literally. It’s winter in New York, and the gangsters spend quite a bit of time hanging out on the frigid wastes of crumbling street corners, awaiting the visits of higher-ups in the organization. They are all casually dressed in garish, un-ironed 1970’s polyester.
In the warmer Miami environment, the New York gangsters are like bumpkin tourists, overweight and lounging in pools and on yachts in bathing trunks and gold jewelry, with numerous naked women. They are unlettered, violent New Yorkers, and the comedy of the Florida sequences derives from these wise guys being just so many dangerous fish out of water.
Al Pacino plays “Lefty” Ruggiero, a journeyman mobster who has not risen very far in the organization despite having given thirty years of his life to it. He’s a hit man, an enforcer, a disappointed man who feels he hasn’t amounted to much, and he’s right about that. Johnny Depp plays Donnie Brasco, a jewel thief who is befriended and mentored by Lefty and brought by him into the inner circle of the mob. We learn early in the film that Donnie is actually an FBI undercover agent named Joe Pistone, and that his task is to infiltrate the mob and gather information. So Donnie’s increasingly close relationship with Lefty is all-important to his duplicitous purposes.
The film is, as they say, based upon a true story, that of the actual Joe Pistone and his six year-long undercover affiliation with the mob. Pistone has himself written several books on his experiences. The film Donnie Brasco is a well-told tale, although filled with many of the usual clichés that have marked such efforts from Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson through On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America, Goodfellas, and so on. American culture according to Scorsese, in other words. There are the lower east side Italians and their accents. Various cooking scenes with lots of tomato sauce and pasta. Gruesome murders. The entire vocabulary of “made men”, “wise guys”, “Forget about it!” (a wonderful scene, actually, in which Depp’s character explains this consummately New York City phrase in its many hilarious variations, to a couple of square FBI functionaries), and every one of the gross profanities that are laced through such films like hand-stitched embroidery in a Victorian ball dress. Gore. Mayhem. Gas-guzzling, ugly American sedans. Rough-tongued badinage and in-your-face humor. Frightening weaponry. The usual, in short, for any Italian mobster movie.
What makes Donnie Brasco an exceptional film is its clear-eyed presentation of deep, but betrayed, love. In his effort to infiltrate the mob, Donnie uses Lefty mercilessly, allowing the older man to teach him everything he needs to know to make himself indispensable to the gang operations. As their relationship grows, though, Donnie’s affection for Lefty does also, until a considerable father-son affection emerges that grows in time into unrestrained love. Donnie is very smart and takes to those things quickly for which it took Lefty years to learn. Donnie ingratiates himself to the upper-level made men and, because he is so good at things, he surpasses Lefty in his rise through the ranks. Lefty sees what’s happening and, despite his personal disappointment for himself, is happy that it is he who has brought this new guy in. Donnie is a rising star in the mob, and Lefty was the man who gave him every opportunity and taught him how to manage those opportunities.
Pacino plays Lefty as a rough, gutty man with few brains but a lot of street-wise bravado. He’ll kill if asked to. He’ll do whatever you want if you’re the boss. He kow-tows to Mafia authority figures, and is obsequious and deferential to them in a kind of fear-muddled way. He’s violent. He suffers not at all from remorse, and is a very bad man. He also is long-married to a woman he treats well, with whom he has a heroin-addicted son whom he has loved all his life. The son is about forty now, and is a major disappointment to Lefty. That love gets transferred to Donnie because Donnie is the kind of guy Lefty had always wanted to be himself, the kind of guy he wished his own son to become.
Depp’s Donnie — that is, the FBI agent — is ruthless to the point that he actually turns his back on his relationships with his wife and three daughters. The wife, played with accurately conflicted tender outrage by Anne Heche, grows to hate her husband, as do his daughters. But Donnie — the Mafia guy — comes to love his mentor Lefty, whose advice, he knows, has been given to him out of a sense of fatherly caring.
The scenes – and there are very many of them – in which Lefty and Donnie are simply talking to each other, are set-piece primers on how fine actors can show developing relationships, conflict, the foreshadowing of betrayal, humor, anger, love and much else, just through conversation. The best moments in the movie are those in which these two men are seated in chairs mumbling to each other. It might be the front seat of a beat up late-model Cadillac as Donnie endlessly drives Lefty around New York City. It might be two lousy chairs in a hospital hallway as Lefty’s real son is dying of a heroin overdose. It might be a couple of stools in a smarmy Brooklyn bar. It might be simply the edge of a frigid wharf, where the two are complaining about the cold. You learn about these men from what they say, but more profoundly by how they speak with each other. Despite all the hum-drum elements in this film, derived from almost every other mob picture ever made, the depth of character and feeling that these two actors bring to the story serve to make Donnie Brasco into a film that explains what real love — felt, intense, honest love — between two men can really be like.