By Jed Wells
“Fear City: New York vs The Mafia” is Netflix’s new limited series, focusing on the FBI’s efforts to bring down the five New York crime families; Gambino, Colombo, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Genovese. While telling the story from the FBI’s standpoint, “Fear City” taps into the themes and nostalgia associated with the rich genre of crime and gangster movies.
Over the course of three episodes, a collection of ex-FBI agents, crime family members, and at one point Rudy Giuliani takes the audience through the lead up to the “Mafia Commission Trial,” a 1980’s criminal trial. A lot of attention is paid to the ways in which federal officers were able to infiltrate the five crime families, and how the crime families were brought down using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. In doing so, “Fear City” plays on conventions of classic crime movies, and is able to deliver a documentary that feels new, but strangely familiar.
Fans of Gangster movies and film fans, in general, will feel at home watching “Fear City.” The series is focused mainly on bugs and wiretaps, and how the FBI was able to place and remove them in various settings. The audio gathered seems straight out of “Goodfellas,” and in the words of one FBI agent “was like hearing a novel being read to you about the mob”. There is an extensive portion given over to the way in which the FBI would conduct car trails and chases, and how they would coordinate and strategies these. The docu-series pairs photographs and footage from the incidents with recreations of certain events, such as the arrest of Paul Castellano. Among the crime bosses arrested was “Fat” Tony Salerno, the inspiration for the Simpson’s character of the same name.
The one defining difference between “Fear City” and traditional mobster films is that this documentary does not paint the gangsters as heroes, or protagonists. While never the clear cut “good guys,” gangsters like Tony Montana, Henry Hill, Daniel, and Vito Corleone always felt like the people the audience wanted to win. Even in films such as “The Untouchables,” the audience at times finds themselves rooting against Elliot Ness. There is no such feeling here. Perhaps it’s the real-life nature of “Fear City” but the bad guys here are clearly the bad guys.
“Fear City: New York vs The Mafia” is clearly an homage to gangster movies, but one that comes with a sobering message: “Don’t forget how bad these people were.” While not without its faults, Sam Hobkinson provides an in-depth look at some of the most lauded individuals in popular history, and the truth behind a lot of these stories. It knows exactly what it is, and the result is greatly entertaining, while also being highly entertaining.
Have you watched “Fear City” yet on Netflix? If so, what did you think? What are some of your favorite crime films? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Jed and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JedWells