In the 1970s and 1980s, New York City was controlled by five major mob outfits—the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese families—that not only ran the region’s various illegal rackets, but also effectively operated the billion-dollar construction industry that was transforming the metropolitan landscape. Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia is the true story of the law enforcement and prosecutorial efforts to take down those kingpins, which played out in a manner eerily reminiscent of The Wire. And unsurprisingly, at least for those who lived in or around the five boroughs during that era, it’s a tale of crime and vice that invariably involves Donald Trump.
The current commander-in-chief factors into the final episode of director Sam Hobkinson’s three-part Netflix miniseries (debuting July 22), since his Fifth Avenue Trump Tower was one of countless projects the mafia had a hand in completing. “So I told him that there’s jobs in here that did count, like Trump. Nineteen million,” says a gangster on a federal wiretap recording, thereby directly linking the future president to the shady mobsters who governed New York’s concrete and cement unions (and businesses). These crooks regulated which of eight chosen firms would get contracts and, in the process, kickback points from the gigs to their criminal superiors. As Fear City makes clear in just a few short minutes, anyone like Trump, who was knee-deep in the real estate scene, was invariably a bedfellow (either directly or indirectly) with the mafia.
Considering Trump’s apparent underworld ties, the biggest question that arises during Hobkinson’s series (from the producers of Don’t F**K With Cats) is why Rudy Giuliani chose, in 2018, to become his lawyer. Fear City lays out how Giuliani initially made his national name by bringing down NYC’s godfathers while working as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. On camera, Giuliani confesses that, as an Italian-American, he loathed the mob. Along with his press-friendly ambitions for higher office, which he’d subsequently attain when he became the city’s mayor, it was this hatred for organized crime that drove him to pursue his legendary case. The hypocritical disconnect between Giuliani’s still-palpable disgust for the mafia, and his more recent closeness with the mob-connected Trump, is so readily apparent in the last episode that one wishes director Hobkinson had taken at least a slight narrative detour to more fully investigate (or least have Giuliani directly address) it.
Nonetheless, if Trump doesn’t get the full working-over that Fear City suggests he deserves, the show otherwise delivers a compelling account of the government’s mission to take down New York’s notorious criminal clans. Key to that endeavor was wiretapping, although as numerous FBI agents explain, obtaining warrants for those maneuvers wasn’t easy. To convince a judge that covert recordings were vital, one had to first prove that the targets in question were engaged in illegal activity. That step-by-step process is explained in excellent first-hand detail: at the outset, obtaining intel from informants; then, collecting surveillance photographs and footage; and ultimately, hiring a “black bag man” (in this case, FBI special operations squad member Joe Cantamessa) to infiltrate a residence or restaurant, or gain access to a vehicle, in order to surreptitiously plant the listening device.
The most suspenseful moments in Fear City are the dramatically restaged anecdotes about Cantamessa and his crew sneaking into mob locales to install bugs, including in the luxurious Staten Island mansion of “boss of bosses” Paul Castellano, whose TV signal they muddied so they could then pose as repairmen and mount a device on the back of his set (all while a henchman held a flashlight, no less!). In those instances, director Hobkinson conveys the urgent danger faced by the FBI, and the daunting logistical and legal hurdles they had to overcome in order to gather evidence necessary for an arrest. Central to their undertaking was Cornell Law School Professor G. Robert Blakey’s 1970 RICO statute, which allowed officials to overcome their chief problem in going after the mob—namely, that bosses were insulated from the crimes their underling “soldiers” committed—by treating an entire family as a consolidated organization, and thus responsible for everything perpetrated by its members.
RICO made bosses vulnerable, and the defining turning point in the case against NYC’s syndicates was the discovery (via wiretap) of “the Commission,” a cabal comprised of the five families’ leaders that effectively exposed the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese clans as one monumental criminal corporation—and therefore prosecutable at the same time. With recollections from the many agents who played a part in building this jigsaw puzzle-like case, as well as from Giuliani and the three young SDNY lawyers (Michael Chertoff, John Savarese and Gil Childers) who handled the trial itself, Fear City is a primer on the structure of the mob and the rigorous investigative and prosecutorial methods used to combat it.
Fear City’s wiretap audio clips aren’t as outrageous as one might wish; most of the comments are of a routine profane-and-threatening variety, and come via speakers who all sound like Joe Pesci’s Goodfellas thug Tommy DeVito. And the series’ dramatic recreations—and decision to film many of its interview subjects in cars parked in alleys and under bridges—sometimes strain to lend the action an authentic wiseguy feel. Compensating for those missteps, however, are stylish then-and-now split-screen sequences, great surveillance material (from the streets, and crime scenes) that evokes the atmosphere of this gangland environment and its devious inhabitants, and talking heads who know their stuff, whether it’s federal sleuths or Michael Franzese and Johnny Alite, two former mobsters who talk candidly, and shamelessly, about their disgraceful profession.
Where Fear City truly shines is in its finer details, be it the revelation that Lucchese boss Tony “Ducks” Corallo got his nickname from his skill at evading subpoenas and arresting officers, or the way in which the FBI tailed bugged vehicles not only with a monitoring van, but with four separate cars equipped with repeaters that boosted the wiretap’s transmission signal. The result is a real-life cat-and-mouse saga of duplicity, treachery and murder that put an end to the golden age of the New York City mafia—save, that is, for the ensuing reign of John Gotti, whose tale would serve as the perfect topic for a Fear City sequel.