Sadly, this film is a semi-earnest and somewhat tedious Mob Dramas that proves the comprehensive superiority of the televisual form for presenting complex stories that span a lengthy period of time. It is riddled with dramatic loose ends, unclear transitions, murky stakes in dramatic conflicts, and since none of the characters really has room to breath or develope I didn’t care about any of it. Pathetically, virtually every story beat was already done better in the TV series Wiseguy. Nor does the film redeem itself via cinematic visual or stylistic flair. Mike Newell is very much a member of the “point a camera at it” school of direction. But, as ever, I didn’t get you to go to all the effort of clicking on a link just to slag off something I didn’t particularly appreciate. I think we are supposed to see Donnie Brasco as a kind of classical tragedy, the tragedy of getting emotionally involved. If we think about it in that restricted way, instead of seeing all the things it could have been, we see what it actually was.
To all intents and purposes, Aristotle still sets the critical agenda when discussing Tragedy ™ as such. He sets out what we still broadly regard as the tragic character arc, in asmuch as the West makes Tragedies per se. Tragedy for Aristotle is essentially about the grinding inevitability of events once set in motion. He prefers Sophocles and disdains Euripides because Sophocles’ work has a sense of inevitability, while Euripides allows events in his stories to spiral so far out of control that they require divine intervention to conclude. For Aristotle, the inevitability derives from some key human weakness, the “Tragic Flaw” that is belaboured in many high school English Courses. A simplistic schema of an Aristotelian tragedy would be that a protagonist begins on some great work or course of action, but all his endeavours are built on the weak foundation or are corrupted by this flaw. Once the situation is established, the fault in the construction is revealed in a shocking moment, which tilts the fortunes of the character from positive to negative.
Donnie Brasco is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New Jersey Mafia. His method of entry is “Lefty”, a somewhat pathetic mob soldier. Lefty’s advancement in the organization has stalled, so that while they rely on him as a work-horse, there is no chance of him running his own crew or making important decisions. When Donnie Brasco approaches him looking for a mentor in the world of organised crime, Lefty sees the respect he never got and the chance to be a bigger and more important figure in the world than he is – even if it”s all just for one man. He vouches for Donnie, essentially and explicitly linking their fates – if Donnie falls, he takes Lefty with him. It is a leap of faith in search of a human connection very obviously missing in his life. Once Donnie is infiltrated, he is faced with the stark moral fact that should he use the information he has obtained, Lefty will be killed. The film follows their miscellaneous adventures before eventually forcing Donnie to fulfil his purpose and give up the information he has gathered.
Various melodramatic incidents puncuate the narrative. Donnie’s marriage gets a half-dozen scenes of escalating strife, before his return from undercover sweeps all difficulties aside. Lefty’s son is shown as a drug addict whose lapses distract Lefty and Donnie from the difficulties at hand. We have some angst about the personal relationships between the various gangsters. All of this is merely present to make us think this film has a broader interest than it does – they are purely nominal scenes.
Aristotle tells us that Tragedy is supposed to be Cathartic – we have experienced the suffering of the main character without actually suffering ourselves and we have a new appreciation of the capricious nature of life. We see potential destroyed and high hopes wasted. In the case of Donnie Brasco, the real tragic victim is the myth of the Mafia. Donnie infiltrated the inner circle without sacrificing his inherent goodness, and Lefty was never a compelling figure. It uses the tragic structure but can’t quite commit whole-heartedly to creating something beautiful to destroy.