Donnie Brasco is a 1997 gangster drama film directed by Mike Newell and starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. It is an adaptation of the story of FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone and his work as an undercover agent infiltrating the Bonanno family, one of the five most important mafia families in New York. Johnny Depp met Pistone several times while he was preparing for the role.
The ending of Donnie Brasco might be a bit confusing for people, which is why we decided to explain what actually happened in the end of the movie. We are going to analyze the narrative elements of the story, as well as the meaning of the final scene, and how it all connects to the true story that inspired the movie and the events depicted in it.
What happens in Donnie Brasco?
In 1978, FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone was assigned to infiltrate a New York mob family, the Bonanno family. For his cover, he calls himself “Donnie Brasco” and becomes an expert diamond fence from Vero Beach, Florida. He gets closer to a modest soldier of the organization, Benjamin Ruggiero known as “Lefty” and his captain Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano.
Lefty can’t make money, his son is a drug addict, and he’s constantly disappointed that he won’t be considered for promotion to a higher position in the family. He tells Brasco of his disappointment at having spent thirty years in the mafia, having killed no less than 26 people and being only a gangster under orders. In Donnie, Lefty sees a young protege, who might be able to succeed where he failed.
He takes him under his wing, and by vouching for him, Donnie is quickly accepted by the other members of the family and becomes an “associate”. The logical consequence of his rise is that he becomes a “freedman”. Over time, Donnie, who transmits his recordings to his superiors, manages to find a place for himself in the organization. But soon he can no longer make sense of things, mixing work and private life and giving no more news to the FBI.
Pistone is aware that the slightest mistake in his work could result in his death or that of his family. Additionally, he comes to regard Lefty as a close and trustworthy friend. He knows that the day the FBI stops the operation, it will be the end of Lefty. After the assassination of the family godfather, “Sonny Black” Napolitano is given a sector to develop while his competitor within the family, “Sonny Red” Indelicato, is given another sector.
For his part, Donnie connects Sonny Black with a bar in Florida. He seems uninterested in it. But Donnie and Lefty go down to Florida and meet “Richie” Gazzo, owner of the King’s Court bar. Gazzo is, in fact, an undercover FBI agent working with Donnie. The latter organizes a summit meeting with the godfather of Florida, Santo Trafficante Junior, on a boat loaned by the FBI.
Lefty sees in this opportunity to become a caporegime on this sector. But, on the day of the meeting, Trafficante asks to speak to Sonny Black who has invited himself to the meeting on the boat. Lefty sees his plan to become a caporegime collapse and resents Donnie. Trafficante, Sonny Black and Donnie chat.
At the end of the meeting, it is decided that Sonny Black and his team can settle in Florida at the King’s Court. This last place becomes a fashionable clandestine gambling hall. But the police raid and close the establishment. Donnie manages to hide $300,000 in a car trunk. While they are in custody, Lefty suggests to Sonny Black that they have been “flushed”.
The latter then asks Lefty to find the “mole” and eliminate it. Back in New York, tensions rise within the family, between the teams of Sonny Red and Sonny Black. Sonny Red plans to eliminate Sonny Black. But, the day when the assassination is to take place, Sonny Black, warned of the project, decides to trap Sonny Red at the place where the meeting takes place.
Donnie is part of the journey along with Lefty, Sonny Black, Nicky Santora and Paulie “Booby” Cersani. Arrived there, Booby asks Donnie to wait in the car. They settle in the cellar and wait for Sonny Red and his team, whom they eliminate. Booby comes back for Donnie. Arrived in the cellar, Donnie notices the carnage. Sonny gives him a hacksaw and asks him to help them cut up the bodies.
When the whole team is going to get to work, Lefty kills Nicky Santora with three bullets in the back of the neck, believing he is dealing with the “balance” of Florida. After the killing, Sonny Red’s son, “Bruno”, wants revenge on Sonny Black. Lefty and Donnie are tasked with eliminating him.
At the same time, Donnie hasn’t sent reports to his superiors for several weeks. The latter fear that he has passed to the other side. But, warned of the planned assassination of “Bruno” Indelicato, they arrest Donnie and Lefty just as they were about to take action.
How does Donnie Brasco end?
The FBI closes Operation Donnie Brasco, which is a success and leads to the arrest and conviction of dozens of Mafia members. At the end of the film, Lefty leaves behind his valuables and tells his wife that if Donnie calls to tell him “if it was going to be anyone, I’m glad it was him”, before he is called to a meeting with his crew, thinking he will be executed for bringing a “mole” into the family. Joseph Pistone now has to hide under a false name and live with a $500,000 “contract” on his head. Thanks to him, more than 200 indictments and 100 convictions have been carried out.
Is Donnie Brasco based on a true story?
The film is based on the 1990 book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, which chronicles the real-life experiences of FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, who went by the alias “Donnie Brasco” for six years as an undercover agent in the circles of the Bonanno Mafia Family, one of the five New York Mafia Families, in New York City and Florida in order to infiltrate them.
In the early 1980s, this led to 120 members of the Bonanno mafia family being arrested and convicted. After Pistone was exposed, he was accepted into the US witness protection program and given a new identity. Pistone works as a writer and as a consultant to various law enforcement agencies around the world.
In 2004 his second book was published called The Way of the Wiseguy (wise guy means “mafia member” in slang). In the film, the assassination of Carmine Galante is mentioned when “Lefty” Ruggiero speaks of the “assassination of the boss” after being “subpoenaed”. At the time, Galante was the acting boss of the family when boss Philip “Rusty” Rastelli was imprisoned.
The cigar-smoking Florida boss in the movie is Santo Trafficante, Jr., the boss of the Trafficante family from Tampa, Florida. The massacre in the basement of “Sonny Red” is the so-called Three Capos Murder. On May 5, 1981, three rebellious capos (captains) named Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato, Philip Giaccone and Dominick Trinchera were trapped and murdered in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.
As you can see, the movie Donnie Brasco is very much based on actual events.
What happened to Lefty after the betrayal?
The film hints that Lefty will likely be murdered. In fact, the real Lefty was taken into protective custody by the FBI. After refusing to betray the “family,” he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on three counts of conspiracy to murder. After eleven years in prison he was released and fell ill with testicular and lung cancer. He was “pardoned” by the mafia and died of lung cancer in 1994.
In reality, it was “Sonny Black” Napolitano who had to take responsibility for bringing Donnie Brasco into the family and was murdered. In 2004, Joseph Massino, the new head of the Bonanno family, was convicted of the assassination attempt on “Sonny Black” Napolitano, who unwittingly planted Pistone into the “family”.