Except for a superb performance by Al Pacino, Donnie Brasco is a run-of-the mill gangster movie.
Primal Fear, 1996, [?], shows an interesting look at the other side of the coin of betrayal.
Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992, James Foley, is a very good tragedy of the common man. Pacino stars in the movie, but the tragic "hero" is played painfully well by Jack Lemmon.
Donnie Brasco is the undercover name of Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), an FBI agent who goes undercover in the mob to gather information. His sponsor is Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), who personally vouches for “Brasco.” As the movie progress, Pistone becomes more and more like his alter ego, distancing him from his family and endearing him to Lefty and the other mob regulars.
Even though the movie is called “Donnie Brasco,” the most interesting character is Pacino’s Lefty. Lefty is not your typical movie gangster. Lefty has trouble at home: he loves his son, but cannot forgive him for abusing drugs. Clearly, he had high hopes for him which are now shattered. Lefty has trouble at work: when a superior is whacked and the position opens up, Lefty is passed over for promotion by a young mob go-getter (played by Michael Madsen). Early on, when Lefty is “called in” (which almost always means certain death) he reacts not with hate or anger or defiance, but with a dazed, fatalistic sense of fear and resignation. Lefty is the Willy Loman of gangsters.
Pacino plays Lefty extremely well. At first, before we know he’s a loser, Pacino is a tough, hard-working gangster, but he is quickly manipulated and misled by Brasco. Lefty is in such dire need for companionship and respect that he takes Brasco under his wing a little too hastily. Pacino beams when he’s schooling young Brasco in the ways of mob life; when he finally has a son again. When problems arise at work, Pacino conveys defeat and disbelief with his posture, his face, his whole body. Lefty is a tragic figure and Pacino makes that figure human.
Unfortunately, Donnie Brasco is not as much about Lefty as it is about Brasco/Pistone. Johnny Depp is good, but not outstanding. There’s nothing wrong with the story, but it’s nothing new. There are effective moments of tension, claustrophobia, and fear, (like when the whole gang knows there was a snitch in Florida) but there are also boring segments that should have either been left out or given some importance (like scenes of Brasco’s troubled home life).
The movie raises interesting questions about trust and betrayal, about children’s needs for fathers (and vice-versa), and about balancing work with family. These themes arise from the story and give it a more interesting depth. Credit screenwriter Paul Attanasio for that. But those themes don’t resonate in the filmmaking. For example, Newell could have paralleled the strife between Lefty and his son with the Pistone family’s loss of their father and husband — and it seems that the story might even imply such a parallel — but the movie never tries to makes any such connection.
In short, the movie is uneven. Pacino’s performance is great and the story seems to have an interesting take on human nature, but the bland, mechanical direction make it not quite worthy of a full recommendation.
I feel I should mention that most other reviewers have liked this movie better than I did, so if you are interested in seeing Donnie Brasco, read some more reviews for more positive hype.