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How Netflix’s new mafia documentary failed

Fear City takes everything at face value, and the results are tedious and vapid.

Old black-and-white surveillance images.
An archival FBI surveillance image from Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Rudy Giuliani, wearing a navy suit with a flag pinned to its lapel, sits in a glassy conference room talking to a camera. “I was a tough kid. I was a boxer. I was taught not to be afraid of anything,” he says. “Could I have been a wise guy? Sure I could have. But in the ’70s, I became an assistant US attorney.”

Surprisingly, he’s not in a campaign ad. Giuliani is a major and exalted figure in Sam Hobkinson’s Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia, a new three-episode documentary series on Netflix. Of course he is. Giuliani, after all, had a large role in the legal strategy that helped law enforcement break the stranglehold that five major mafia families had on the economy and culture of New York City in the 1980s. It would be weird to make a documentary about the era without including him in it.

But Rudy Giuliani circa 2020 is not the same cultural figure he was back then. Nor is, for that matter, Donald Trump, whose connections to the mob in that era and apparent adoption of mob-like tactics are no secret. Fear City — a true crime tale for the “law and order” crowd, laced with nostalgia for the good ol’ days — pulls off some wild feats of lazy filmmaking in its storytelling. And the wildest of them all might be an almost complete absence of any acknowledgment that the past is barely in the past, when it comes to this topic.

Imagine making a documentary in 2020 about New York City, the mafia, and the 1970s and ’80s with only the thinnest possible reference to the current president of the United States — who, whatever you think of him, is a thoroughly relevant character. (The thin reference in this series comes at the beginning of the third episode, when someone says that if you were a real estate developer in New York in the 1980s, you had to deal with the mob. Fear City shows a few images of Trump while mentioning Trump Tower as a major development from a major developer, and plays a bit of a tape where a mobster mentions him. Okay, but: How did Trump deal with the mob? To what extent? Were his actions criminal? Don’t hold out for an answer. Fear City has already moved on.)

Or contemplate the decision-making that goes into including Giuliani — Trump’s future lawyer — as a pervasive presence and primary subject, alongside the New York attorneys and FBI agents he worked with, nearly all of whom are interviewed in similarly glossy settings, with everyone giving uninterrogated accounts as the film’s most reliable narrators. The more colorful former mobsters’ voices (mostly guys who did time or became states’ witnesses) become less significant once Giuliani and co. enter the picture — a working title for Fear City could well have been How Rudy Saved New York City from the Bad Guys: And That’s Why Law Enforcement Is Good. I had to scan the credits to confirm the series wasn’t funded by the Department of Justice.

Others can better speak than I to the historical veracity of Fear City. Was RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), the congressional act that gave law enforcement the ammunition they needed to finally indict mob bosses, as unambiguously good as the film makes it seem? How well does the way that former mobsters and FBI agents characterize those years of cat-and-mousing each other hold up against history? I have no idea, but its lack of voices outside of those directly involved in the cases leaves me skeptical.

Michael Franzese, who was a member of the Columbo crime family.

I’m not here to quibble with Fear City on the level of facts, though, or even politics; what struck me was how bad it is as a documentary.

Fear City is shallow, toothless, and dull

It’s a boring choice to tell a story like this from the point of view of the FBI agents. Their perspective is well trodden in TV and movies. And New York’s relationship to the mob is not exactly hidden history.

It’s also crushingly dull to adopt the official narrative about what New York was like back then as the film’s de facto worldview, proposed in (unfortunately punctuated) on-screen text at the start of the first episode:

1970’s NEW YORK


That’s not entirely wrong, of course. New York was in rough shape in the 1970s, and nearly bankrupt.

But if there was anything else going on in New York at the time, you wouldn’t know it from Fear City, which provides little, if any, context. Nor would you know how ordinary New Yorkers were really affected by the state of things, except through the words of the mobsters and the FBI agents interviewed in the film.

There’s plenty of talk of the mafia’s control over unions, but no former union workers appear to talk about it. We hear stories about grocery store owners being exploited, but never hear from the actual grocery store owners. And women don’t seem to exist in this world at all. (Very few women speak throughout the entire series; the most interesting female voice is former FBI agent Charlotte Lang, who was the sole woman agent on the mob-busting team, and she only appears halfway through the third episode. Fear City would have been far more compelling if it had reoriented itself around her.)

What we get with Fear City isn’t “New York vs the mafia,” as the subtitle promises; it’s “the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office vs the mafia,” which boils down to a lot of talking about the specific ways bosses got bugged and doesn’t offer much of a sense of how New York was caught up in it all.

But the worst sin Fear City may commit is being ... tedious? Something as pulpy and cinematic as cops chasing criminals should be loaded with juicy stories. Fear City somehow manages to both be far too simplistic and utterly lost in its own weeds. Watching it made me feel like an interloper in a conversation a bunch of guys were having as they relived their glory days to one another, only to realize 10 minutes in that none of them were particularly good storytellers. The film spends a lot of time talking about bugging the mafia, which is interesting enough at first, but then it goes on ... and on ... and on ... and just when you think it’s finally moving on to a new topic, it goes back.

Former FBI special agent Joe Cantamessa in Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia.

Documentarians can only work with the facts they have available, of course. But they make choices, just like other filmmakers, about what goes into their film and what doesn’t. They pick the voices they believe are important and leave out the ones that don’t matter, and they adopt narratives and choose which facts to use to tell their story.

The story told in Fear City is ultimately about heroic law enforcement and attorneys pursuing the mafia. It’s also about how glamorous and fun it was to be in the mafia. (Drinking Champagne comes up frequently.) It is emphatically not about what factors led to organized criminals becoming so powerful in New York.

It’s not about what kind of men were attracted to the mob, and why. Nor is it interested in the ethics of spying on civilians suspected of criminal activity, or curious about why women were so consistently sidelined (a question mob-movie godfather Martin Scorsese explored just last year in his film The Irishman). It is only glancingly concerned with why someone — like, say, Rudy Giuliani — would decide not to be a “wise guy” and instead become an attorney. (In part, it seems he, and others, hated what the mafia had done to Italian American communities, which would have been another great thread to tug on.)

Fear City is also not about why this particular moment in history matters, other than its potential for entertainment value (if you are very interested in the mechanics of placing a bug or the construction of legal strategies). But you don’t tell a story like this for no reason. At the end of Fear City, the film halfheartedly notes where some of its interviewees landed: jail and state’s witness status for the mob guys, mayor of New York for Giuliani, no note of the other agents and lawyers.

Then it turns ominous. The last scene is archival footage of a newscaster wrapping up the story by saying, “Who will the next generation of bosses be, and what kind of shadowy crime games will they play?” The footage cuts to a shot of lower Manhattan, with the Twin Towers prominent. We go to credits.

You can take away any number of messages from that directorial choice, but Occam’s razor suggests it’s a link between what we all know happened to the Twin Towers and how Giuliani brought down the mafia. Giuliani has long made political use of his governance during 9/11 and its aftermath, particularly since becoming President Donald Trump’s attorney in 2018 — something Fear City does not mention at all (again, seems relevant!).

No matter: The link is established. Fear City plays best as an extended attempt to remind us that the good guys were the good guys and Giuliani was the smartest guy in the room, no matter what he’s up to these days. It is not interested in how the mafia’s presence in New York shaped the city’s future, or what the events of the past reveal about the twisted present; it’s not interested in New York. It’s a reinforcement of accepted ideas, not a probing of history.

Sure, there’s a place in the world for uncomplicated nostalgia for the old days. But it should never be as vapid, or dull, as Fear City.

Fear City is streaming on Netflix.

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