The True Story Behind Donnie Brasco

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Donnie Brasco is based on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, who infiltrated the mob in the late 70s and early 80s.
  • The majority of the film is accurate, with only about 15% being dressed up by director Mike Newell.
  • Joe Pistone still leads a secretive life, using assumed names and undisclosed locations, due to the danger of retribution from the mob.


There have been a handful of movies about brave souls who work undercover for the government against the mob and organized crime. The best may be Martin Scorsese‘s master stroke The Departed starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. Scorsese also hit “snitch” paydirt with The Irishman in 2011. But the most accurate mob informant thriller may very well be the 1997 movie directed by Mike Newell called Donnie Brasco, led by A-listers Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. There are so many heart-pounding scenes in Donnie Brasco where the FBI agent Joe Pistone is one wrong word away from getting whacked. Given that it’s such an intense story, we decided to dig into the terrific mafia film and see how much of the story actually happened and what Newell took artistic liberty with while looking in on what the informant has been doing in the decades since leaving the FBI.

Donnie Brasco

An FBI undercover agent infiltrates the mob and finds himself identifying more with the Mafia life–at the expense of his regular one.

Release Date
February 28, 1997

Rating
R

Runtime
127 minutes

Genres
Biography , Crime , Drama


Who is the Real Donnie Brasco?

Donnie Brasco is the alias of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Depp) who went undercover to work his way into the inner circles of two of the most dangerous and deadly mob families ever. From 1976 to 1981, Pistone assumed this identity and risked his life every day to get information on hundreds of gangsters in the Bonnano and Colombo families. Working primarily in Brooklyn, New York, Pistone befriended a low-level mafioso named Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Pacino). He used him to get close to some of the most dangerous organized criminals of the late 70s and early 80s. Pistone has gone on record saying that 85% of the film is accurate, and 15% is dressed up by director Mike Newell. So the majority of the film is factual. Depp and Pistone spent several months together before principal photography began and then Pistone was on set every day during filming. Pistone said that Depp picked up on his mannerisms so well that one day when Pistone’s mother visited the set, she heard Depp’s voice and thought it was her own son’s. Pistone addressed how he added to his value when working undercover, saying,” I had a skill that not many of them had, which was picking locks, burglar alarms, safes. That’s a skill they needed, and I had from my years in Naval Intelligence and taking different FBI courses.” So most of what you see Depp’s character do in Donnie Brasco are things that Pistone really had mastered.

How Did Donnie Brasco Befriend Lefty Ruggiero?

Al Pacino as Lefty Ruggiero sitting by a resort pool in Donnie Brasco
Image via IMDB

In the film, Depp’s portrayal of Joe Pistone is introduced as a jewel thief and petty criminal from Florida who “has connections” in Brooklyn, New York. Pistone spoke as to why he chose to portray Brasco as a jewel thief of all things, saying, “I had to take a profession that I could operate alone. Most jewel thieves operate alone. I picked a profession that was not too violent. I couldn’t be out there committing violent crimes. If you say you’re a car thief, then you gotta be stealing a car every day, every night. But a jewel thief can do one score a month and make a lot of money doing it.”

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Pacino plays a low-level earner for the Bonnano crime family named Lefty Ruggiero. He approaches Pistone as Donnie Brasco wanting to get a stolen diamond appraised for sale. Pistone almost immediately becomes fast friends with Lefty who turns around and vouches for Donnie with some of the higher-ups in the Brooklyn-based outfit including capo Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano (Michael Madsen). That would be the beginning of the end for Ruggiero who was completely unaware that Brasco was really Joe Pistone and was working for the good guys at the FBI. After Pistone/Brasco was pulled from the assignment in 1981 after five years of work, he had taken the legs out from under the Bonanno family. His work led to over 200 indictments and more than 100 of some of the key underworld players.

Joe Pistone Served as a Consultant for ‘Donnie Brasco’

As we mentioned, Pistone stated that he believed 85% of the film is accurate towards the way things went down, but he has also spoken to the 15% that was fudged a little by Newell. Most of what was added to the story revolves around Joe’s relationship with his wife Maggie, played by Anne Heche. There was some artistic license taken with their marriage and some of the events depicted, including several key scenes. According to Pistone, the scene where he slaps Maggie never really happened, saying, “The director (Newell) put that in. I remember driving with Johnny to the studio that day, and he hardly said anything, I think, because he knew I was going to have a problem with that scene,” said Pistone, a consultant on the film. “When I saw it, I went ballistic. But I don’t outrank the director in this case. He’s like the captain, so it stayed.” Another scene that was added included the counseling session in the film. Pistone maintains that he and his wife never went to see a marriage therapist. And maybe the biggest difference between the actual story and what ended up in the film was when they disposed of a body. “We never did ‘The Sopranos’ scene,” he says of the grisly scene where Lefty’s crew kills Sonny Red (Robert Milano) and two other rival gangsters, then uses a hacksaw to dismember and dispose of the bodies.

Another aspect of Donnie Brasco that is glossed over to an extent is what really happened to Lefty after the mafia becomes aware that Donnie is an FBI rat. There is a scene that leads you to believe that Lefty is on his way to being killed for bringing Brasco into the family. He is shown taking off his jewelry and putting his personal effects in a small drawer for his wife, and he sets out to meet a mystery man who we believe is supposed to kill Lefty. When he closes the door behind him, you hear a gunshot as the screen fades to black and picks up with Joe at the firing range explaining away the gunshots. Pistone shared what actually happened to Lefty, “I figured Lefty would get killed… he actually died of cancer. He was on his way to getting killed when the FBI arrested him and saved his life.” The film would have you believe he was shot and killed, but he died years later from disease.

Joe Pistone Still Uses Fake Names When Traveling

Cast photo of Johnny Depp, Michal Madsen, James Russo, Al Pacino and Bruno Kirby standing in front of a brick wall in Donnie Brasco

Even at the age of 84, the former special agent who dealt a death blow to one of the biggest organized crime families in the United States still has to look over his shoulder. When he travels for speaking engagements and for leisure, he has to use assumed names and his home address is still undisclosed. Mobsters have long memories, and the intrepid former informant (who is still the only FBI agent who has been invited to join the underground organization) isn’t taking any chances with his family and retribution. For almost 25 years following his infiltration of the Brooklyn mob family, there was a $500,000 price on his head. So he is still very cautious and probably always will be. We don’t blame him one bit. Pistone formally retired from the FBI in 1996, and his whereabouts remain secret. If you want to get in touch with him, good luck to you. There’s a better chance that he’ll contact you if he’s interested in telling his unbelievable story.

Donnie Brasco is currently streaming on Netflix in the U.S.

Watch on Netflix



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