True crime documentaries often have to skirt a line between the facts of the case as they appeared, the ability to tell a story in hindsight, and the macabre fascination in sinister events or dangerous people.
'Fear City: New York vs The Mafia' has no such concerns, instead modelling itself into a glossy examination of the first RICO-led investigation that smashed the New York mafia in the late '70s and early '80s, all of it told by the people who survived it.
FBI agents, lawyers for the mob, former mafia members, even former SDNY attorney and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani turns up to recount his involvement in breaking the mob's stranglehold over the city. Using hours of archive footage, real FBI surveillance tapes, and some judicious and elaborately filmed reconstructions, the campaign to bring down the mob is detailed with easy parallels drawn with the likes 'Goodfellas', 'The Wire', 'Donnie Brasco', and so on.
The producers of the documentary, who were responsible for the equally sensationalist 'Don't F*** With Cats' docuseries on Netflix, know that the territory they're covering is familiar ground. There's at least a dozen documentaries that have covered the RICO trials of the '80s, the New York Five Families, the murder of Carmine Galente - so how do you set yourself apart?
As mentioned, 'Fear City' makes use of reconstruction, but it also films the interviews with each of the parties in a unique fashion. One of the FBI agents who broke into Paul Castellano's house to plant a bug is interviewed inside of an old police car, talking off-screen to someone. Another is interviewed at a coffee shop, not unlike a scene from a Scorsese movie. Giuliani, meanwhile, is interviewed in an austere lawyer's office, while the mob's lawyer conducts his inside an ornate restuarant. A former mob capo is interviewed in a neon-lit bar, while another discusses his life of violence inside a boxing gym.
It's a clever move, because so often is the case that dry interviews can be made more so by not giving due consideration to how they're filmed. While in some cases, it can be viewed as making it more ostentatious or sensationalising, here it adds to the atmosphere of dark glamour of it all.
Set over three episodes, 'Fear City' bounces between different characters, different investigations, how the mob have their hooks into every aspect of New York, but always seems to find the common thread that links them all together - money, pure and simple. Funnily enough, one aspect that 'Fear City' fails to touch upon in any great detail is how the New York mob regularly paid off police, judges, and even some FBI agents.
Granted, that's a topic that's been covered in another excellent documentary - 'The Seven Five' - but it's barely mentioned here. It may simply be that 'Fear City' was already overstuffed, but it does speak to a certain simplification that the documentary has that can't be ignored.
All that said, 'Fear City' is a compelling miniseries that touches on the grime and glamour of mob rule in New York, and how it all came tumbling down.
'Fear City: New York vs the Mafia' lands on Netflix on July 22nd.