Fear City: New York vs The Mafia Review: An effective, even if rushed retelling, of an important battle
Fear City is an effective retelling of a successful endeavour of a group of people who rescued democracy from the throes of anarchy
If not for cinema, how many sitting halfway across the world from Italy and the USA would know of the Mafia? Thanks largely to cinema, the workings of the Mafia has been fed into our collective conscience. But... what about the cops that walked on the streets of New York trying to keep it safe from their tyranny? Fear City: New York vs The Mafia, a three-episode mini-series, stitches together a quick narrative about how the cops and the legal system united to bring the Mafia—the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese families—to its knees.
The true heroes in any story about the Mafia are always those who stand up against them, and Fear City tells us such a story in almost 150 minutes. The length feels insufficient when considering the kind of narration employed (archival footage, filmed reconstructions, etc...). Everything seems rushed and we are not given enough time to empathise with the hours put in by New York’s finest.
The ‘how’ of bringing the Mafia down is effectively shown. The planting of bugs to record incriminating conversations. The sifting through endless hours of conversation to find one useful statement. The unending tabs on the notorious, and the relentless pursuit, while keeping a safe distance. The weight of documentation needed to make a case stick. I wish it had made for more compelling viewing though, because the truth is, visuals of people listening to endless hours of conversation isn't exactly television gold. Alas, if only we learned more about these people sacrificing their personal lives. Save for prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, who would go on to become the Mayor of New York, and part of US President Donald Trump’s (a small cameo of a young Trump is seen too) legal team, little is shown about the lives of the other players.
Too much time is spent in explaining how the Mafia took over New York, and almost no time in humanising the federal agents and lawyers who gave it all to bring peace back to the streets. We hear anecdotes from former Mafia members about the power they wielded, their extortion techniques, the extravagant lives they lived—champagne parties and helicopter tours—and of course, how the law finally caught up with them. “The Mafia showed the dark side of Italian immigration,” say some of the federal agents and attorneys on the case, who are Italian immigrants themselves. Such angles are not adequately explored in this mini-series. “I was told women cannot work in organised crime,” says FBI agent Charlotte Lang, who was involved in bringing down one of the biggest Mafia families. However, she comes too late into the series to give us any real sense of the challenges she faced as a cop, and a woman.
Nevertheless, the series is still an effective retelling of a group of people who rescued democracy from the throes of anarchy. Towards the end, when one of the bosses is bumped off by his rivals, one of the good guys says, “A strange bond exists between us and the Mafia. Both live by codes of honour and respect. I heard him on the mic for almost 600 hours. He was supposed to be indicted and end up in prison. He was not supposed to be dead.”
This line says it all about the decade-long fight to bring criminals to justice, a difficult fight that blurred lines between the personal and the public, between right and wrong. As the end credits roll, we are hit with the understanding that the players and the rules might have changed, but the fight, in a sense, is not over.