Witness to the Mob is the story of the man who finally brought down John Gotti, the head of New York's Gambino crime family in the 1980's. This NBC mini-series aired on May 10, 1998. The show is billed as being mostly true, with some events and names altered. I can't tell you what really happened, and those of you with a passion for crime stories are going to know more about these events than I do, anyway, but I can tell you what happened according to this series, as written by Stanley Weiser (W.).
The story starts in 1972, when Sammy "The Bull" Gravano (Nicholas Turturro) was just a small-time tough guy on the streets of New York City. He and his friend, Lou (Michael Imperioli), pull off simple jobs, like stealing cars. His toughness earns him some attention from organized crime, and his mentor, Toddo (Philip Baker Hall), teaches him the ropes. Meanwhile, Sammy dates and wins the heart of Debra Scibetta (Debi Mazar), who agrees to marry him. Sammy eventually proves himself to the Gambino crime family and is officially sworn into the brotherhood. But as the head of the family, Paul Castellano (Abe Vigoda), continues to prove that he cares more about himself than the family, Sammy and another up-and-comer, John Gotti (Tom Sizemore), decide to do something about it. They organize a successful hit on Paul, and John is chosen as the new head boss of the family. He and Sammy are extremely successful, working the system and taking advantage of people. Sammy has to kill a lot of men as the underboss of the Gambinos, and a lot of them are his friends, like Lou. Eventually, John's big ego causes some problems; he isn't careful enough around the feds who are investigating him, and he's too much of a public figure. In the late 1980's, John and Sammy are arrested. Sammy plans to stick by his boss at first, but after hearing recordings of John talking about how Sammy is too successful on his own and not loyal enough, Sammy decides to betray John before John does the same to him. Sammy testifies against John as a murderer, and John goes to prison. Sammy has to testify against other organized crime families but is given a shorter sentence. He is a free man at the end of the series.
If my summary sounds a little fractured and rushed, that is because the layout of this mini series is extremely so. At almost three hours, there still doesn't seem to be enough time to get through everything. Hence, this show moves from one short scene to the next faster than any other production I can remember. I was amazed any time a single scene lasted longer than two minutes. Voice-overs by Sammy are the tool used to smooth things out; the abrupt transitions would seem even more unintelligible if they weren't in there. Sometimes shots of Sammy in is jail cell accompany the voice overs as a way to create a little more space between scenes and let the viewer know that more time has passed. You're going to see a lot of fades-to-black here that were intended for commercial breaks.
The plot is actually pretty simple, considering how much of it there is, and the second half of the mini-series is very repetitious: Sammy starts to hear that one of his friends is running his mouth, and then Sammy has to whack him. Repeat. This is one show that didn't make organized crime look glamorous because all anyone does is squabble. I can't believe how many of their own the Gambinos killed. I also can't believe that all of these people stay in this life long enough to get killed. If you run your mouth, you're going to die; it's that simple. None of the characters figure this out, so Witness to the Mob amounts to one murder after another until the government finally nails Gotti. The petty fighting reminded me of third grade, only with sociopaths.
The production design does a good job of getting the viewer back into the New York of the 70's and 80's. Most of the colors are bland, and the cars are big beasts. Some real-life news clips are used, like one with Mayor Giuliani. The acting from the ensemble cast is excellent; I've always like Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), and he is suitably arrogant and intense as Gotti. Turturro (The Longest Yard)is the appropriate physicality to play Gravano, but I think he's just not convincingly mean enough. I'm sorry, but Turturro's face is just too sweet. Mazar is one of the top names billed, but she has very little screen time. Her character is kept in the dark about what her husband does for a living. And, yes, there are a lot of actors from The Sopranos in this show, like Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Frankie Valli, and Vincent Pastore.
For me, the most interesting part of Witness to the Mob was watching the lunacy with which these people lived their lives. Having to kill your best friend and then lie about it, all while your other buddies approve of it, is crazy, and the code of conduct these people thought they had was a joke.
Grand Theft Auto IV, anyone?
Witness to the Mob is presented on a two disc set. Each disc runs 85 minutes, excluding credits, for a total running time of about 2 hours, 50 minutes.
But you shouldn't expect this to be a visually stimulating ride, anyway. The colors of the movie are pretty bland, and the production design (accurately) follows suit. I watched this upconverted to 720p, and I still wasn't impressed with the picture's sharpness. I saw some artifacts, including some noise in darker shots. Even the shots in full sunlight don't look particularly bright. Still, I probably saw this in at least as good a quality as people who watched it originally on broadcast TV. I also think that the motion was kind of blurry.
The Special Features
While this was a noteworthy mini-series, the lack of special features and 5.1 programming shows little enthusiasm for its DVD release. It's not necessarily worth buying, but those of you who are crime nuts should look forward to this. If you're merely curious, maybe you can catch it on a rerun on cable. Unless you really want it, "Rent it."