- Movie Rating -

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia (2020)

| August 1, 2020

The life of the mob fascinates us.  It just does.  We are fascinated by the system of inward justice populated by bosses, underbosses, captains and soldiers who operate outside of the law in a hermetically sealed world of values, loyalties and laws unto themselves.  Sometimes, its fun to watch the bad guys in action.

Netflix’s new three-part documentary Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia indulges quite often in the temptation to romanticize the mob despite the fact that its biggest agenda is for the FBI to spend a few hours congratulating themselves on a job well done.  The series looks back over the most crucial time in the mob’s history, the years between 1970 and 1985 when the heads of the city’s five families – Gambino, Genovese, Bonnano, Luccese and Columbo – and essentially ran New York’s high-rise construction business. 

What is special about this mini-doc is that it moves away from being just another re-run of mob history and becomes a very cogent procedural on how the FBI were forced to abandon their usual tactics of arresting low-level soldiers who were employees, yet openly unconnected, to the bosses they worked for.  In other words, a lower functionary could be arrested for robbery or murder but the bosses were so insulated that no one could connect them.

The strategy was really quite clever.  Through a series of primitive, yet well placed, wire taps, the Feds gathered so many hundreds of hours of conversations between mob enforcers and their functionaries that the agents working in the bureau say that they often felt like dinner guests, recording and understanding so much of their housekeeping details that they knew the names of their children and their friends.

The first episode is the best, detailing how the heads of the families managed to not only rule the city but also to stay just outside of the law by never having to get their hands dirty.  These crime families became so powerful that they were successful at working the political system to put their owned sponsored judges on the bench.  They controlled everything from docks, to hospitals to commercial industries and restaurants.  But most importantly came an elaborate industry of intimidation and fear that not only kept the mob running the city but kept a cash-flow running into their operations that could feed a starving country for a century.

The overdrawn detail is what keeps things interesting.  We understand how the FBI moved in without being noticed, but we also understand that the mafia was largely taken down because they were sloppy, especially when Gambino family overlord Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano allowed a telephone repairman into his home who turned out to be an FBI agenda whose motive was to plant a microphone.  Later a cable repairman is able to wire a gangster’s TV set so covertly that the gangster helps out by holding the flashlight!

The three episodes are nicely laid out.  The first episode largely establishes not only the iron grip that the Italian mafia had on New York in the 1970s but also why law enforcement was unable to stop them.  The second episode details the FBI’s infiltration of the mob’s inner world after the introduction of the anti-racketeering act known as RICO, or The Racketeer Influences and Corrupt Operations Act, which helped break down criminal organizations using corporate entities to pursue their criminal activities, which in the case of New York’s Italian mafia was the High-Rise construction industry.

The third episode is where I get frustrated.  While it does a serviceable job detailing the final days of the investigation and how the FBI used the wire taps and the RICO act to effectively destroy the Italian mob’s hold on the City of New York, the ending left a lot of questions unanswered.  Having spent so much time with the mob and the FBI, we would probably like to know what became of the mafia in the following years – in the 90s and after the turn of the millennium.  How did they sustain themselves without the power base that came from the bosses?

Maybe that’s a good thing.  The world of the mafia is so fascinating to us that we are left wanting more.  Fear City is a very easy watch.  It is a series of uncomplicated turn of events into an important chapter in law enforcement.  It won’t change your world, but it won’t waste your time either.

Streaming now on Netflix

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized