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Family Secrets

"Witness to the Mob" is just so much (Sammy the) Bull in biopic drag.

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At least network crime families give each other some respect. Had it aired one sweeps week earlier, the NBC Mafia mini-series Witness to the Mob (Sunday and Monday, May 10 and 11; 9 to 11 p.m.) could have gone paisan-to-paisan with the CBS Mafia mini-series The Last Don II. On the other bloody hand, with so many Cosa Nostrums, maybe the great American viewing public would have begun to wonder about our chemical dependency on olive oil and Sinatra. It might even occur to us that the mobsters themselves are going to Mafia movies to pick up tips on how to patter, spiff, and swag. About the most one can say for Witness, the biopic of a killer-snitch, is that it’s got a saving grubbiness. Whereas both Puzo mini-series, like Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, pretended to grand opera, with their tragic heroes doomed to dondom and the long-distance loneliness of the Murder Inc. CEO -- you know, like Oedipus blind at Colonnus or Lear raging on the blasted heath -- Witness sticks to a thug’s-eye view of the neighborhood.

Growing up gang-related on the mean streets of Bensonhurst, all Sammy “the Bull” Gravano (Nicholas Turturro) seems ever to have aspired to become is a made man, which means a tough rep, a house in Jersey, and a horse for his moll (Debi Mazar). John Gotti (Tom Sizemore), with whom Sammy allies himself in the patricide of Gambino boss Paul Castellano (Abe Vigoda), has loftier ambitions -- dazzling threads, TV sound bites, his mug on the cover of Time. They have a snappy line in verbal yard goods, doing the Tarantino. (“You bark, I bite.” And: “Sometimes I think you live where the buses don’t run.”) They speak of “the street” as if it were Darwin’s Galapagos or Dante’s Inferno or Olduvai’s Gorge, and as if no one else who grew up there had entered instead law school or the priesthood. But between extortions, pasta, and pops, what they are really best at is sitting around in their social clubs drinking coffee, playing cards, and betting on pro football games while the Justice Department bugs them. Until, of course, the wrath of rico, after which Sammy the Bull rats out everybody for a plea bargain and a sabbatical in the Witness Protection Program (that Brigadoon).

So much for the Code of Omertà, which has gone the way of Captain Midnight’s Secret Decoder Ring. What Witness to the Mob lacks in redeeming social value, it tries to make up for with unsavory buzz. But why should Robert De Niro and Tribeca Productions want to associate themselves with the seedy proceedings, unless De Niro’s doing penance? Why should Turturro, such a good guy and a pleasure on NYPD Blue, want to bulk up and bullyboy as the ungulate Gravano, unless he couldn’t refuse De Niro? Why, after what Ray Liotta did to her in Goodfellas, should Debi Mazar want to sleep with another hoodlet, like a swine-flu booster shot, except that she had terrific times with Nick on the Spike Lee sets of Jungle Fever and Malcolm X? If there were no Mafia movies, could there be an Abe Vigoda? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, any more than I know why Murray Kempton used to let the Dapper Don get away with murder in his columns, or whether the families of Sammy’s many victims, who are suing under Son of Sam to prevent his profiting a penny from the Peter Maas biography Underboss, will be at all happier with a TV mini-series based on the electronic journalism of John Miller. All I know is that these stand-up guys have always done their standing up on other people -- our dead bodies are their platform heels and elevator shoes.

On the plus side, we get to see Frankie Valli, very late of the Four Seasons, impersonate a Gotti apparatchik. On the minus side, we have to listen to “Volare.” I promise to write an essay someday on the boundary situation of the snitch, including field notes on the site contestations and inscripted body languages of the transgressive songbird in Miami Vice versus the Lacanian squeal in Night Heat, after which I’ll elaborate a theory of meat-machine interface that’s almost Gnostic. But not this morning.


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