At the core of this three-part documentary series, Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia, are previously unheard FBI surveillance recordings and enlightening, often riveting interviews with the operatives who planted the bugs in homes, cars and restaurants and monitored the audio for incriminating evidence. There are some lavish, high production value visuals, including sweeping aerial shots of period NYC, giving the doc the epic feel of classic mob movies. Director Sam Hobkinson sets the scene of a crime-ridden Big Apple of the 1970s and 80s in the first episode, with law enforcement failing to curtail the activities of the city’s leading five mafia families; Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luccese. A new strategy is employed by the FBI using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as a model to connect the upper echelons of the families, the Bosses, with the crime carried out by the lower ranks, the Soldiers, as well and the Captains who link them. In the second episode as the expansive influence of the mafia becomes clear, with its grip on several key unions, evidence connecting all Five Families is gathered, including “The Godfather Tapes”, leading to a high profile trial, as detailed in episode three.
Hearing the voices of real conversations between mafia bosses and their associates on the FBI tapes makes clear just how authentic many screen portrayals have been, including of course Brando’s Oscar-winning turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. And perhaps life was imitating art to some extent too. As the FBI operatives detail the work entailed in listening to endless hours of recordings, and the frequent challenges of deciphering what was being said, both as a result of poor sound quality and coded language, the audio is often rewound and played back multiple times so that we too begin to listen closely to what’s being said. It’s a nice conceit, but a little overused at times, especially as we have the benefit of subtitles. The locations of the talking head interviews with former agents, ex-mafia associates and others are characterful and atmospheric, adding to the series’ cinematic language, including a diner, a period car by the East River, a barber’s shop, and a boxing ring. Recreations frequently using the former FBI agents themselves listening back over tapes for instance are particularly effective in bringing the past to life visually, alongside some rare and previously unseen archive footage and photographs.
If you’ve been missing media appearances by Rudy Giuliani lately you’re in luck, Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia includes interviews with him recalling his time as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and his push to prosecute organised crime bosses, leading the path for his successful bid to become the city’s mayor in 1993. The series doesn’t link Giuliani to his future client, and 45th President of the United States, but it does detail the mafia’s control of the concrete supply in the city, indicating that at one period any major construction such as the building of Trump Tower likely benefitted the mafia, who took a sizeable cut of concrete firms’ inflated bills. This is a chapter in the real estate mogul turned reality TV star turned President’s career that’s also explored in Ivy Meeropol’s recent HBO documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn. That film details that rather than using steel, like most skyscrapers built in the 80s, Trump Tower used ready-mix concrete for its structure, with concrete work continuing despite a 1982 citywide concrete industry strike.
Easily digestible in one sitting, Fear City is compelling throughout, with the tone and intrigue of a thriller. Although frequently insightful, unsurprisingly given the scope of the subject matter, the series isn’t a comprehensive study of the mafia’s grip on New York in the 70s and 80s and its downfall, but it is a skilfully crafted and richly detailed piece of the larger picture well worth an evening’s viewing.
By James Kleinmann
All three episodes of Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia release globally on Netflix on Wednesday July 22nd 2020 at 3am ET.