The Netflix docuseries brings the past to today, with its recounting of how the Mob ruled New York
The documentary miniseries Fear City: New York vs The Mafia is a three-episode epic of little moments depicting how law enforcement strived to bring down the Mafia. It’s the 1980s, in New York. For organised crime dilettantes like myself, this series manages to bring something fresh to the table, and this needs to be recognised.
The story, as it has gone down in history, follows the quest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to bring down organised crime. The docuseries does not focus its limelight on just facts and figures, however. It goes for the story part of history, by bringing in the very people who were part of the F.B.I. task forces to bring down the Mob.
What it does even more superbly is that it brings in former Mob members, members who lived these events and members who were caught in the right and wrong side of history and fiction alike. It all unwinds in flashbacks, interviews and on-screen Courier-new captions.
To bring down the Mob at that time and location would be the thirteenth labour of Hercules (Poirot, to be in the correct genre). So why and how did it happen?
Fear City gives its viewer the gruelling, coarse process of surveillance and evidence collection. There were five families that were in charge of organised crime in New York at that time: the Gambino, the Colombo, the Bonanno, the Lucchese and the Genovese. So, respectively, the F.B.I. assembled five separate task forces that were in charge of surveillance and evidence collection. At that point, this was the biggest operation against organised crime in the history of the United States.
But what Fear City shows isn’t the flash and glimmer that romanticised Mob flicks might have. These are actual flesh-and-blood people that not only experienced those events but recount them on screen. Fear City: New York vs The Mafia uses a microscope-lens technique to zero in on the odd, amusing, sometimes companionate symbiosis that the Mob had with the F.B.I.
Mob members would greet the surveillance vans, knowing that the F.B.I. was after them. On his way to custody, when mob-boss Paul Castellano discovered that his house was wired he said that ‘This wasn’t fair’, and the agent who arrested him couldn’t look at him. In another occasion, a former Mob member would say the gas-racketeering scheme was so effective, the F.B.I. agents would walk straight into his office and tell him, ‘We know you’re shaving off money with gas. Just tell us how you’re doing it.’
This was life and death, not a game of cops and robbers, but weirdly enough a code of honour and up-to-a-point empathy developed between the two sides.
Perhaps the most poignant and resonating moment was when mob-boss Paul Castellano was assassinated during the Commission Trial. The agent who had watched him, who had arrested him, who had been after him since day one of this case was in awe.
‘You hear a guy for six hundred hours, you get to know him. It shouldn’t have ended like this. He should have gone to jail, faced justice.’
The docuseries does not shun away from the historical facts and details of the case. It meticulously describes the company-like operation the Five Families ran, which reached discombobulating degrees. The Mob had created a system of getting just a tiny bit of everything from everyone: the garment industry, the unions, the parking and sanitation industries, the construction jobs. They were everywhere, and thus, they could get the percentage they wanted.
It is crucial for the success of the storytelling to show how disorganised law-enforcement was at the beginning of the case – their ignorance of the RICO statute –as opposed to the continuously escalating levels of the Mob’s organisation– the Commission was an executive council of the Five Families’ bosses that regulated organised crime disputes across New York and the country.
One of the most controversial issues of Fear City, being a docuseries produced in 2020, was the participation and interviews of Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani was the D.A. who prosecuted the Commission Case against the Five Families’ Mob bosses, he was then mayor of New York, and most recently, the defence attorney of U.S. President Donald Trump. As an Italian-American, he stated that this case was personal for him. He wanted to see it through, he wanted to triumph against the Mob and the shadow it cast over Italian-Americans.
Sam Hobkinson, the director, knew that he had to interview Giuliani despite him being a “polarising figure at the moment” of production. Giuliani, despite his affiliations and what he represented at the time of Fear City’s production, had been a key figure in this story, and so he needed to be a part of this. In the end, he was.
Other reviews have been somewhat severe on Fear City regarding its quoted factual “sloppiness”. The docuseries might not portray all the facts in the correct timeline, but this wasn’t the essence of this series. The effect that the viewer gets, realizing the magnitude of this quest against organised crime by being exposed to the small moments, little details, anecdotal experiences of the lives these events shaped, gives a lucid image of what it was to live in Fear City.
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Βy Thanos Kyratzis