For the first few minutes, *Donnie Brasco* looks like any other mafia movie: a bunch of guys sitting in a bar, playing cards, talking cars, posturing. *Donnie Brasco* quickly turns into something quite different, however, when Donnie (undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone) meets Lefty Ruggiero, a middle-aged, low level mobster who barely ekes out a miserable living at the bottom of the mafia food chain. Donnie convinces Lefty that the diamond he’s just bought is a fake; after Donnie proves his mettle in a confrontation with the diamond dealer, the mobster and the FBI man become fast friends. Lefty really needs a friend; Donnie needs an introduction to the mafia. When Lefty vouches for Donnie, their fates are inextricably bound together, each man’s life is in the other’s hands.
The fascinating twist in *Donnie Brasco* is that it is Lefty the mafioso, not Donnie the mole, who is most imperiled by the alliance. As their tentative, mistrustful friendship deepens into genuine affection, Donnie is faced with the realization that his daily betrayal of Lefty can only have one result: Lefty, an honorable, loyal friend, will likely die.
*Donnie Brasco* is a fascinating, absorbing character study, and an original perspective on the mob. The high living glamor of mafia life, the subject of countless other movies, is wholly absent from this film, which is based on Joseph Pistone’s memoir *Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia*. Instead, *Donnie Brasco* zeroes in on the desperation of life on the bottom rung, the alienated, fearful existence of the weakest members of a predatory pack. Lefty (Al Pacino) is a completely different kind of mobster, a heartbreaking, tragic figure, a father who aches for a son to take under his shabby wing. Donnie (Johnny Depp) does more than play the part, he loses himself completely in the role of surrogate son and mobster, while becoming alienated from his real family, and his FBI bosses.
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio (*Quiz Show*) has crafted a finely detailed, morally complex, moving story with mythic overtones. Along with the high drama, the powerful sense of tragedy and impending doom, *Donnie Brasco* is also filled with absurdly comic scenes of daily life with the mob, like extended riffs on the subtleties of meaning in \\fuggeddaboudit,\\ and visions of leisure-suited mafiosi angrily swatting at balls on a tennis court. Through Brasco’s mentor Lefty, the fascinating details of the mob’s alien and rigid social structure, the life and death rules, the small, deadly day to day betrayals, are revealed. It isn’t the familiar mob story that makes *Donnie Brasco* so absorbing, however, but the warm friendship, the real bond, built on a foundation of lies, that develops between Donnie and Lefty. That *Donnie Brasco* occasionally breaks out in venal, familial violence isn’t unexpected, although the very real threats to which Donnie and Lefty are constantly exposed are rarely explicitly drawn, remaining instead the uneasy backdrop of their daily lives. They’re like men walking a tightrope over a tank full of piranhas -- they never look down.
That Donnie might at any moment be forced to turn unwilling patricide is never far from from his mind, and it is a realization that makes his adopted father Lefty all the more tragic, a pawn so far from the knights and kings that, if he weren’t so vulnerable, he might be playing a whole different game. Pacino is terrific as Lefty, a man full of weary resignation, of knowing that his mafia family will eventually turn on him. Watching nature progams on television, he witnesses again and again the predator killing the prey. At first, it seems Lefty fancies himself a predator, a lion among men, but it becomes increasingly evident that he only aspires to that. To survive long, he must move up the mafia food chain, transform himself from gazelle to cheetah, and he has litle more chance of making that transition than a real gazelle does. That constant fear of savage death, combined with tough guy posturing, and genuine, paternal love for Donnie, make Lefty a wonderfully sad, complicated, unique character, a man thoroughly chained to his life, and resigned to a predetermined death. Pacino leaves the hambone out of this, one of his finest performances; in his final scenes in *Donnie Brasco* he achieves a deeply moving, aching brilliance.
As Donnie/Joseph, Depp is equally fine, losing himself in his role every bit as much as his character does. Donnie is a cypher, a shadow figure without an identity of his own. Absorbing Lefty’s lessons, insinuating himself into Lefty’s life, he finds he can’t sustain the dual roles. Just as mafia life swallowed Lefty, it swallows Joseph whole, taking his real life, his family, his identity with it. Donnie becomes as much the mobster as Lefty, a beast clutching at a scrap of humanity. Alienated from his wife and kids, he seems also to despise his own people, the FBI, to be losing contact entirely with the man he was.
Donnie’s inner conflict arises equally out of the conflicting values of his own culture, and the mob subculture. In both worlds, Donnie’s deceit will lead to a death -- his own or Lefty’s. When Donnie eclipses his patron in their little mob clan, he doubly betrays Lefty, for whom he feels real affection and loyalty. As much as Donnie penetrates Lefty’s life and world, Lefty burrows into Donnie’s life, and his heart, leaving the two unwise guys equally trapped, equally vulnerable.
Ably directed by Mike Newell (*Four Weddings and a Funeral*), *Donnie Brasco* quietly builds dramatically to a conclusion that is no less moving or tragic for being preordained. As in any story of this depth and complexity, the inexorable playing out of tragedy is all the more deeply satisfying precisely because it disappoints the impulse for a last minute miracle. But falsity and simplicity are all that *Donnie Brasco* disappoints.