Paul Castellano in Netflix's " Fear City: New York vs....

Paul Castellano in Netflix's " Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia." Credit: Netflix

DOCUMENTARY: "Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia" is a three-part docuseries about how the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York brought down the heads of New York City's mob families in the 1985 Mafia Commission Trial.

Now streaming on Netflix, it features contemporary interviews with Rudy Giuliani, who led the office at the time, as well as many of the key investigators and prosecutors who secured sweeping convictions.

The documentary is, understandably, less well stocked when it comes to former crime family members, relying on the testimony of the former Colombo capo Michael Franzese, a ubiquitous presence when it comes to these sorts of stories, and the ex-Gambino associate John Alite. 

MY SAY Viewers who have learned everything they know about the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act from watching "The Sopranos" would do well to consider "Fear City," which offers a detailed rundown of exactly how federal prosecutors used it to secure the previously unfathomable convictions of the heads of each of the five families in the mid-1980s.

The series works best as a clinical dissection of how this happened both from a conceptual standpoint in terms of formulating the case and piecing the puzzle together, and from a practical one. The pursuit of The Commission, the governing entity comprised of the heads of the families, within the framework of the RICO Act is clearly and concisely unpacked by the key law enforcement players.

At the same time, director Sam Hobkinson draws ample suspense from the drama of bugging cars and homes to surveil men such as Lucchese boss Anthony "Ducks" Corallo and Gambino head Paul Castellano.

But the documentary feels perilously thin for such a rich subject. "Fear City" would benefit from being longer and more in depth than just three episodes.

The surveillance recordings and photos taken of the men entering and exiting confabs provide the bulk of the period material. But instead of weaving them into a larger consideration of some of the key questions that emerge about how organized crime in New York City got to be such an extraordinary force, the filmmaker falls back on glamour shots of his interview subjects in industrial yards and diners, or listening to surveillance playback. 

Hobkinson dances around the edges of a more interesting movie. Donald Trump's name comes up frequently on the mob wiretaps, he's seen boasting of the city's building boom in footage from the late 1970s or early 1980s, and there are multiple shots of Trump Tower in construction.

The documentary does not have the courage to explore the question of exactly what Trump's ties to the mob may have been and, in a larger sense, it paints a muddled picture of exactly how mob control of the construction and other legitimate industries in New York really developed and played out. 

This epochal moment in New York City illustrates a symbiotic relationship between big business and corrupting criminal influences that transcends this specific time and place. It has been a key facet of American life, in one form or another, and remains so today. The Mafia Commission Trial is a significant landmark, and this documentary effectively presents the facts surrounding it, but that larger story is missing.

BOTTOM LINE: To tell this story with the scope it requires, "Fear City" would have needed to double its running time at minimum.

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