Koch Vision // 1998 // 173 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 12th, 2009
The story of the man who brought down John Gotti.
As told in a manner that will bring down viewers unfortunate enough to sit through this snoozefest.
In the mid-1970s, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano (Nicholas Turturro, NYPD Blue) is a rising Mafia star in New York City, especially when teamed with his longtime friend Louie Milito (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos). He catches the eye of another rising Mafia star, John Gotti (Tom Sizemore, Natural Born Killers), and together the two plot to take over the Gambino crime family from their ineffectual boss Paul Castellano (Abe Vigoda, Fish). However, their violent rise to power eventually leads to their undoing.
You'd think that with an impressive cast and Robert De Niro (GoodFellas) serving as executive producer, this two-part miniseries (which originally aired on NBC in 1998) would be a real gritty, no-holds-barred insider account of what life in the Mafia is really like. You would be wrong. Witness to the Mob is pure TV-movie mediocrity, as generic as any Lifetime movie starring Tori Spelling. The dialogue is mostly rehashed from other mob films, the direction is lifeless, and the storytelling is so plodding that it bleeds whatever excitement there is.
It's inconceivable that this miniseries should be so tedious, given the source material. The story of John Gotti's and Sammy Gravano's criminal careers has been well-chronicled in many places. In many ways, they've become the most famous Mafia leaders of the modern era, even though they were arguably much less significant than their predecessors. Unlike true gangster visionaries like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Carlo Gambino, Gravano and Gotti were basically street punks who got lucky. Even so, there's still plenty of excitement in their story, but you wouldn't know it by this miniseries. Everything is related in the most leaden and episodic manner possible: something mildly interesting happens, and then something else happens immediately afterwards. It's supposedly tied together with Turturro's narration, but the lines he's given are so frequently either vague or clichéd that they add nothing of value.
The dreary writing and directing aren't the only problems. Even though the cast is generally solid, that doesn't mean they belong here. Abe Vigoda, in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb. Paul Castellano, for all his failings, is still meant to be a fearsome and imposing figure (the real Castellano stood over six feet tall and weighed well over two hundred pounds). Abe Vigoda is many things; imposing and fearsome are not among them. Even though Castellano is meant to come off as a mob boss who's less respected than he should be, that doesn't mean that he should come off as a sad sack. For his part, Turturro does what he can, but his voice and accent sound uncomfortably close to Jim Breuer's Saturday Night Live impression of Joe Pesci. The rest of the cast, including such mob movie stalwarts as Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Vincent Pastore, and Debi Mazar (as Gravano's wife Debra), all give serviceable but unexceptional performances. In all fairness, this miniseries was made a year or two before The Sopranos premiered on HBO, so at the time it wasn't nearly as passé to see some of these actors in a mob movie as it is now. Still, on The Sopranos, most of them played actual three-dimensional characters and gave better performances. Here they're basically playing thinly defined plot devices and their performances are all the weaker for it.
It doesn't help that this miniseries, for all its grittiness, is still forced to conform to network TV standards. Yes, there's more violence and harsh language here than on most NBC shows of the era. Presumably, more people in this miniseries get shot in the head than on your average episode of Will & Grace. Still, this may be going out on a limb, but it's highly unlikely the real John Gotti ever said of a mortal enemy, "Screw him!" Or that Gravano ever exclaimed, "We're really in the soup now!" An earlier HBO movie that told this story, Gotti (1996), had its share of problems, but at least the dialogue and situations in that project actually felt more realistic and natural.
Technically, the DVD isn't much better. The full-screen transfer looks dark and murky, although that could just be the source material. The miniseries was apparently shot in the dead of winter, judging by the lack of color or sunlight. The Dolby Digital stereo mix is adequate, though hardly booming. There are no extras, not even to correct some of the peculiar inaccuracies in the script.
The one performance in Witness to the Mob that doesn't feel phoned-in or contrived is Sizemore's. John Gotti is clearly the part he was born to play: a loudmouth bully who's all bluster and violence with little self-awareness. In HBO's Gotti, Armand Assante (Judge Dredd) seemed to strain to make Gotti an empathetic protagonist. Here, since Gotti is just a supporting character, Sizemore is free to depict him as vulgar and vicious as possible without worrying about whether the audience will like him or not. It's probably the closest to the real Gotti that any actor has ever gotten.
Sizemore's performance and the occasional (very occasional) snippet of clever dialogue aren't enough to make Witness to the Mob worth recommending. Even hardcore Mafia movie buffs will find this miniseries dull and hackneyed. Anyone curious about the story of John Gotti and Sammy Gravano would do better to read any of the seven (seven!) books written about their rise and fall.
Guilty of adding nothing to the genre or the subject.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 173 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated