Movie Reviews

Taking Down The Mob | “Fear City: New York vs The Mafia” 2020 Netflix Docuseries Review

Thirty-five years ago, mob rule ended in New York City, as all five mob families were taken down by then-United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani in a landmark Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case that targeted the mob’s ruling body made up of all five mob bosses, The Commision. This year, Netflix released a three-part documentary showing how it was done, with interviews from Giuliani, former gangsters Curtis Sliwa, Johnny Alite, and Michael Franzese, former FBI agents Joe Cantamessa, Charlotte Lang, and more that highlight how entrenched the mob was in all aspects of business in New York City in the 1980s and what it took to take it down. 

Fear City movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
Joe Cantamessa, who bugged many members of the mafia.

“Fear City” specifically focuses on the prosecutor’s side of the case, going into excruciating detail as to how the FBI used informants and wiretaps to gather excruciating evidence against the mob’s elite. Giuliani and his prosecutors took aim at The Commision to cut off the head of the mafia from which the government could then dismantle the crime organizations from the top down, though Silwa, Alite and Franzese offer a great balance to this by offering the mob’s perspective, explaining how each crime family worked. While one might assume each family hated each other, they were all in business together. 

The best part of this series is hearing exactly what the FBI and the government’s prosecutors had to do to take down the mob. It’s interesting that the mob knew they were being watched, they knew that there were bugs everywhere, but they largely carried out their business anyway, most likely because they didn’t understand RICO or the case the government was making against them until it was too late. Giuliani led an effort to throw men who were previously untouchable in prison, and no matter what you think of his current politics, what he was able to accomplish is admirable. 

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia': How agents worked for days to ...
Heads of the five mafia crime families.

Unfortunately, “Fear City” leaves its tale woefully incomplete, and it has been criticized for having a clear slant towards the prosecutors. It glosses over 100 years of mob history, which is necessary context to understand how momentous the RICO case was, and it does little to comment on how New York crime changed in the 1990s and early 2000s, which a docuseries made in 2020 ought to do in order to contextualize the aftershocks of this case for a modern audience. 

I was very entertained as someone who had some knowledge of the mob, but hadn’t been exposed to this specific case before. But I must admit, if I already was familiar with the case, the interviews it collects do little to offer anything new to the narrative. “Fear City” reveals a lot about the procedure and process of taking down the mob, but it doesn’t fully take advantage of its interview subjects, who were directly involved with the case, and now have 35 years of hindsight to reflect on it. 

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia review - bringing down the Five ...

“Fear City” is made of three 44-62 minute episodes, and I feel like it could use at least one or two more to fully cover its subject. I liked what I watched, but at the end of the day, there just isn’t enough in this docuseries. 

“Fear City: New York City vs. The Mafia” gets a 5/10 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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