Reading the Screen: Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco, the 1997 gangster flick starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp,was based on the 1987 memoir of former FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, who spent more than half a decade inside one of the most notorious of New York’s famous Five Families, the Bonanno family. As “Donnie Brasco” he rose through the ranks, ultimately holding a position of considerable power and trust.

It’s an excellent movie — if you haven’t seen it, go rent it right now –but it makes several major alterations to the book, cutting entire characters and locations and storylines, streamlining the real-life events so that a six-year story can fit into a two-hour movie.

If you were making a miniseries out of the book, I’d say you should keep everything, because Pistone’s memoir is one of the best nonfiction accounts of the Mafia you’re likely to find. But if you’re making the book into a movie, a lot of stuff has to go, and what the filmmakers (including Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio) chose to keep was the best and most moving part of the book, the relationship between Pistone/Brasco and Mafia assassin Benjamin “Lefty Two Guns” Ruggiero.

As played by Pacino, Ruggiero is a veteran Mafia soldier, a hitman with a frightening number of bodies to his credit, a guy so paranoid that everything he does and says is colored by his fear that somebody, somewhere, is out to get him (and, to be fair, he’s not wrong). It’s a brilliant performance, and — to me, anyway — an accurate representation of the Ruggiero of the book.

Depp, as Pistone, has a tricky job. He’s playing a man who has to come across as a guy who wouldn’t think twice about killing someone, while not losing his grip on the man he really is: a devoted law enforcement officer, husband, and father. Pistone, in his book, spends a lot of time on this element of the story; the movie has rather less time available, but Depp’s performance in a few key scenes nicely captures the essence of it.

Here’s the difference between book and movie: the book is a sprawling, epic-sized story of the New York Mafia, while the movie is a character piece, about the relationship between a career criminal and his best friend, an undercover FBI agent.

Here’s the movie trailer:



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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