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There’s almost something criminal about watching a mobster film without Al Pacino or Robert De Niro in it. The cinematic wise guy, with his cartoonish bravado and brazen thuggery, has enthralled moviegoers for generations.
But truth is more deranged than fiction. Real-life “murderers [and] psychopaths” populated the mob, says former FBI agent Joe O’Brien in Netflix’s new three-part series Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia. Organized crime families terrorized businesses large and small into cooperation, controlling a wide swath of commerce. The documentary rewinds the tapes four decades, when the FBI finally put together a plan that would significantly cripple the Mafia.
“People thought law enforcement couldn’t do anything about the Mafia,” says former FBI supervisor Jim Kossler. “It would be here forever.” I remember as a teenager believing that very thing: How can the Mob operate on American soil virtually as a sovereign enemy power?
“We prospered because we infiltrated every aspect of society,” explains Michael Franzese, a former Colombo family captain who in 1986 received a 10-year prison sentence. The Mob ran drugs, prostitution, and loan-sharking and dominated legitimate businesses—unions, construction, garbage collection, and more. Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Mafia coffers. Prosecutors occasionally locked up mobster “soldiers” but not bosses.
The tide turned in 1979 when Cornell law professor G. Robert Blakey, who had drafted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) years before, taught the FBI how to use the anti-racketeering law. A key (obvious now but apparently not then) was proving the heads of the five largest Mafia families were orchestrating illegal activities (cooperating, in fact), even if they weren’t personally committing the underlying crimes. How to gather evidence? Massive surveillance.
Through grainy video and garbled audio clips, Fear City (rated TV-MA for language and graphic crime scene photos) reconstructs in striking detail several surveillance operations. In one, the FBI discovered it could remotely disrupt and restore cable service, sending an agent disguised as a repairman to bug a Mafia head’s home television set. Another time—to practice installing listening equipment—the FBI purchased a Jaguar sedan identical to one a Mob boss drove. Dismantling the Mob would take equal parts guts, ingenuity, and patience.
A matter-of-fact tone pervades the interviews. Retired goons and G-men mostly say they were just doing their jobs. The ex-mobsters don’t voice remorse, and, except for a few expressions of moral outrage, the former FBI agents seemed to regard their task merely as a chess match, albeit a deadly one. No wonder, then, the entertainment-devouring general public has a distorted picture of mobster criminality.