Donnie Brasco

In his recent films, dating back to his undeniably funny turn in Dick Tracy, Al Pacino has become a compulsive ham — one step away from being a self-parody that his fans laugh at affectionately, as we do now with Dennis Hopper or Jack Nicholson. A friend of mine loves to parody Pacino ripping his glasses off in City Hall and bellowing “Thass all I wanna know!” In that movie, and also in Heat and even in Scent of a Woman, Pacino’s motto seemed to be “The louder the better.”

But he’s a great actor, and he still has plenty of surprises left in him. In Donnie Brasco, a superbly crafted true-life mobster film, Pacino plays a shabby, aging gangster named Lefty Ruggerio, and he gives a performance that nearly erases our memory of his awful grandstanding in Heat and City Hall. Pacino is quiet here, exhausted and bitter — he turns Lefty into a wiseguy version of Willy Loman. There’s deep pathos in his portrait of a mobster who never made it.

Pacino would make Donnie Brasco worth a look even if it were a dud, but it isn’t. The title character, whose real name is Joseph Pistone, is an FBI agent who infiltrates a New York crime family by getting close to Lefty. Johnny Depp, who plays Pistone, turns in a brilliant poker-faced performance. For most of the movie, the undercover Pistone must keep his expression perfectly blank (he can’t react with horror to the sudden bursts of violence or he’ll give himself away), and yet Depp always lets us know what Pistone is thinking. He does this with no voice-over narration and a bare minimum of dialogue.

With a quieter Pacino and the deft silent actor Depp, Donnie Brasco is free to be subtle. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and the great screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) pay as much attention to emotional details as to the clockwork details of mob life. When Pistone visits his wife Maggie (Anne Heche), who’s always in the dark about what he’s doing, the camera lingers on Pistone putting away cereal boxes. A wonderful touch: it dramatizes how diligently Pistone must organize his dual life. Mob over there, family over here.

Many reviewers have singled out the scene in which Pistone refuses to remove his shoes in a Japanese restaurant (his tape recorder is in his boot). That’s a terrific bit, but what stayed with me were the scenes between Pistone and his new friend. Lefty, whose own son is a junkie, seems to cling to Pistone as the son he should have had. Pistone doesn’t know how to react to Lefty’s fierce love for him, and for me the best moment in the film is when Lefty confronts Pistone with evidence that seems to blow his cover. He takes out his gun and scares Pistone with it, but not by aiming it at him.

Donnie Brasco ends with two eloquently silent bits from Pacino and Depp, after the FBI closes in on the mob family. Lefty puts his valuables in a drawer and goes to meet his fate, while Pistone accepts a medal and a check, his expression frozen and stoic. What are these men thinking? We can spend hours filling in the blanks left by this great and saddening movie.

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