‘Fear City: New York vs the Mafia’ Puts a Spotlight on FBI Snoops While Recycling Old Mob Stories

Fear City: New York vs the Mafia,” a new 3-part docuseries from Netflix, chronicles how in the ‘80s the FBI finally figured out a way to take down the New York City Mafia with the use of wiretaps. Depending on your viewing tastes, this will either be a revelatory series or some of the same old mob stories. As an informative piece, what it does is put a face to all those stereotypical FBI agents you see in movies and TV shows wiretapping criminals. The standard crime film has that touch of a van parked outside a stakeout, with an either bored or dogged agent wearing headphones while some wise guy spills the beans. “Fear City” is all about that side of the story. 

In terms of being insightful you won’t learn anything new here about the mob. The first episode confirms that everything Martin Scorsese and “The Sopranos” dramatized was essentially true. It begins in late ‘70s pre-gentrification NYC where the slums were infamous and the Five Families had their fingers in every sort of industry — large and small. The unions were in their grip, and as former mayor Rudy Giuliani explains on camera, you could not even open a mere barbershop without a “wise guy” coming in to demand a 30% tax. But with their activities so buried under layers of fraud, extortion and other shadowy dealings, it was difficult for law enforcement to do anything about the Mafia as an organization. Then G. Robert Blakey, an attorney and law professor, devised the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, known to crime buffs as RICO. Now the FBI could go after “captains” and “bosses” through the gathering of evidence via surveillance and break into the superstructure of the mob’s vast network.

“Fear City,” as directed by Sam Hobkinson, is essentially a flashy recap of the basic details we already know about mob life and how the FBI suddenly became desperate to snag them (no mention is made of J. Edgar Hoover once terming the Mafia a fantasy). Superficially it’s a fast-paced entertainment, edited stylishly with a lot of vintage ‘80s footage and music. For true crime buffs there will be much appeal in the use of rare surveillance of famous mob bosses like Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno meeting with goons, puffing cigars and telling reporters to “go fuck yourself.” The real focus is on FBI agents like Joe Cantemessa who share their stories of figuring out where to put bugs and having to decipher the conversations being recorded. Unfortunately, Hobkinson rarely includes more than a few brief bits of the tapes, never truly diving into them and instead fixating on typical gangster talk where someone orders someone’s balls to get broken, or boasting “it’s our fucking union.” Even the former mob associates interviewed, like Michael Franzese and Johnny Alite, say little that is fresh or colorful. This world has been so thoroughly explored in documentaries, countless movies and shows that we can only shrug when Franzese, a more colorful character on Twitter when it comes to his politics, says the same old lines about guys getting whacked if they snitched, or how fraud can make you a lot of money. There’s more morbid intrigue in a section dedicated to the famous Carmine Galante hit, where the gangland boss was shot down while having lunch, expiring with a dangling eyeball and cigar hanging from his lips. As expected much of the series features a parade of famous names like Gambino, Bonanno and Gotti. 

What makes this different from other crime docuseries is that “Fear City” is more about the law enforcement side of things. Giuliani and U.S. attorneys Michael Chertoff, John Savarese, and Gil Childers recall bringing top mob guys to court as young men in their 30s. Some of the more fascinating information they share has to do with the smaller but essential features of a trial, like how a verdict can hang by a thread depending on how an elderly juror will react to a bloody piece of evidence. But “Fear City” never truly dives into what must have been a wider net of corruption that helped the Mafia thrive. FBI agents and former gangsters mention how any construction project over $1 million involved some kind of mob connection or kickback. Audio recordings hint that Trump Tower’s construction had some link to the mob underworld, but it is never further explored and, of course, Giuliani has nothing to say when it comes to his friend who is currently in the White House. There are some news shots of Trump grinning over NYC real estate having a boom, but that closet is left unopened.

By being very black and white, “Fear City” carefully avoids deeper questions and themes about the nature of corruption in the United States. Its grander idea is that NYC was a city under siege and all it took to stop it was for the FBI to finally catch the mobsters on tape admitting to stealing, threatening, and killing. No one will surely miss the Mafia as it was in its heyday, but it was such a striking phenomenon in American criminal culture that it deserves more than three quick episodes telling us what we already know. Giuliani rightfully slams the mob as an insidious enterprise that would prey on Italian immigrants and others, but the point should be obvious for all to see. Did the Mafia ever infiltrate city government offices? What politicians were in their pockets? Reagan appears on a television proclaiming the ‘80s to be the age of the entrepreneur, and nobody defined being your own boss more than the heads of the Five Families.

Brisk and brimming with disco, “Fear City” is a quick true crime fix. It is not unenjoyable as a piece of general information. But we have been entertained so many times before by these same stories, that it’s time to dig deeper beneath all the wise guy talk.

Fear City: New York vs the Mafia” begins streaming July 22 on Netflix.