History Channel // 2003 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 17th, 2004
Not necessarily goodfellas...maybe adequatefellas
They came from Sicily, with one wish: the American Dream of prosperity and freedom. But they carried with them a style cemented in old world traditions of ritual and respect. From brash street gangs to small-time swindlers, the members of the once mighty Italian mobs met in the tenements and slums of New York and slowly began to rebuild their empires. During prohibition, they found a racket filled with infinite wealth. Through bootlegging and the surrounding industries, they made more money than they ever could have imagined possible. But along with massive wealth came power struggles and ego clashes. By the time the 13th Amendment was repealed, many of the old school mob bosses had been killed or imprisoned. The Mafia needed a leader with vision, a man able to turn their legal fortunes. The catalyst was Charles "Lucky" Luciano, under boss for the New York mob. Luciano came up with the idea of turning crime completely "organized," creating a board of directors known as The Commission and a support group of hired goons with one purpose in mind, elucidated in its name: "Murder, Incorporated." Throughout World War II and the resulting prosperity, La Cosa Nostra functioned like a Fortune 500 company, splitting territory and dividends equally. And at its head was "Chairman" Luciano. As the 50s rolled around, the families branched out into gambling in both Las Vegas and Cuba. But Castro closed the East Coast concerns and it wasn't long before Sin City gave the syndicate the same signals. As the millennium approached, the Mafia was no longer the nationally recognized and ordered threat it once was. The modern world had finally caught up with the ancient, arcane group. This is their saga and their legacy. And it is all part of The Godfathers Collection: the True Story of the Mafia.
If there is one thing that prevents The Godfathers Collection from being a spellbinding bit of real life television reporting, it is repetition. True, the tales told are so woefully generic that you almost have to imagine the connective anecdotes and rely on your history of the Hollywood mob movie to fill in the blanks. And yes, several shadow or ancillary characters in the history of organized crime, from the abolitionists to the co-conspirators, are given little or no airtime. And unlike most documentaries, when Mafia tales are stripped of their romantic Shakespearean tragedy, operatic violence, and wise-guy directorial virtuosity, they become dull. Mobsters are not serial killers or terrorists: they are somewhat stodgy immigrant businessmen, utilizing inherited crime ideals from those in the old country to control their fluctuating fortunes. It's Hollywood that made Bugsy and Don Vito and Henry Hill the flamboyant superstar icons of sin, direct Id reflections of our own desire to beat the system, buck the trends, and come out wealthy winners. The aphrodisiac qualities of money and power convert the two-bit hood into a mesmerizing man of (diminished) principles. But all those details, those quirks and quips that made La Cosa Nostra an institution for millions of film goers are absent in this two-DVD set from A&E. All we get instead are the same three stories told over and over and over and over again, as entertaining and enlightening as the rote memory of dates in second semester history class.
There is nothing wrong with weaving the story of Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel into each and every episode in this five-part offering. But the problem becomes one of continuity (or maybe too much of said). When each man appears in the others' stories, in the overall history of the Genovese family or the Mafia in general, we hear the same damn stories -- Luciano created the Commission, Lansky was the brains, Siegel was the good looking killer, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There is no attempt to update or color their personas or even give them depth. It's almost as if, once they created their History Channel/A&E Biography, it is cut and paste time. Merely take the portions (and the interview footage and the photos) from those installments and add them to the latest episode. It is not hard to imagine a day and time when, once the entire saga of the Mafia is created, an endless stream of puzzle-pieced programs could be devised. What A&E should have done is taken all this material, even the modern stories of the mob that they have investigated (Where is John Gotti? Sammy "The Bull" Gravano? Sam Giancana?), and sat down to patch together a cohesive, in-depth, Civil War-style discussion of organized crime in America, from its Sicilian roots to the now rumored association within rap and hip-hop. Just randomly throwing together five episodes of various series (which is what was done here) just asks for recycled recollections. With a little more care and a lot of editing, this could have been the comprehensive overview the packaging proclaims it to be.
Despite this flaw, The Godfathers Collection ends up offering a few stories that are worthy of your attention. The "Oddfather" saga of Vincent "The Chin" Gigante (who feigns insanity -- some say -- to avoid the legal system) and his battles with one time don Frank Costello is a fascinating and fresh account of the modern, post-World-War-II gangland adjustment to the failing influence of the mob. The Commission and its violence-based board of enforcers, going under the now legendary moniker of Murder, Inc., also make for an absorbing entry in the tale (unfortunately, it falls under the main story problem -- the same facts are paraded out over and over). When we get to Joe Valachi and his warts-and-all ratting out of organized crime before Congress, the narrative crackles with intrigue. This is not to say that the big three (Luciano, Lansky, Siegel) don't have some stellar moments themselves. The myth busting around the founding of Las Vegas (Bugsy muscled, not imagined, his way into the Flamingo Casino disaster), Cuba's status as Mafia gambling's paradise lost (Lansky sunk his fortune into the island just months before Castro canceled his and all other gangster's line of credit), and the ineffectiveness of crime fighters against the clans (mousy men like Tom Dewey brought down the big names?) shows that not everything Tinseltown and its outsider auteurs offer is true. But one thing is painfully obvious: when channeled through the wild imagination of a screenwriter or novelist, the history of the Mafia makes for firecracker cinema. But paraded out in interesting, if terribly repetitive, episodes that reference and crisscross the other, the true history of the Mafia becomes truly dull.
A&E presents this DVD in a strange, almost insane packaging format. First, there are about five hours of television material here, with no bonus extras or contextual aids (maps, charts, biographies, or cast of characters). So they assume you have a little knowledge of the Mafia's make-up going into the offering. Then they offer a 100-minute summary of organized crime on Disc One and almost four hours of individual episodes on Disc Two. Then, to make matters even stranger, the line-up of Disc Two is out of sequence. They offer the basic stories of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky first, jump to the modern overview next, and then conclude with Bugsy Siegel, like he was an afterthought. Instead of attempting something chronological, we get a very slapdash presentation.
Visually, the transfer is direct-to-video vibrant and brand new. Lots of archival footage of varying quality is employed, and be warned: all the Italian footage has a logo/bug in the upper right corner that never goes away. So if you find that kind of thing irritating, you now know it exists. On the sonic side, the Dolby Digital Stereo is fine and occasionally atmospheric, as when street sounds or nightclub ambience is added to create a metropolitan atmosphere. But overall, The Godfathers Collection is merely acceptable. It is not great or even very good. One of the most fertile arenas for dramatic movie making is the Mafia. Why it should be so dry and monotonous in its real-life version is a mystery that, along with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, may never be unraveled.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated