Released on February 28, 1997, Donnie Brasco quickly became a critical success. And, it even can be considered financially successful as it made nearly three-times its budget. However, being released so early in the year meant that it was largely forgotten by the time summer rolled around and was largely ignored by the major movie awards that winter. Had Donnie Brasco been released in the award-baiting season (September - December), it most certainly would have been a serious contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, that isn't what happened, so Donnie Brasco joins a prestigious and ever-growing list of great movies overlooked by the industry that created them.
Donnie Brasco is based on the undercover investigation of FBI Agent Joe Pistone into the upper echelons of the Bonanno crime family in New York City. Assuming the identity of Donnie Brasco, Pistone infiltrated and gained the trust of the Bonanno family and eventually gathered evidence that brought the family to its knees.
The film, however, is not about the investigation or how Donnie (Johnny Depp) maneuvers as an undercover agent. Instead, the film focuses on the relationship Donnie forges with Lefty Ruggiero, an aging hitman played by Al Pacino. Initially, the relationship is Donnie's way into the family, but it eventually turns into a genuine friendship between the two men with Donnie torn between his duty as a law enforcement official and loyalty to his friend. Tension builds as the investigation draws to a close and Donnie desperately seeks a way to save Lefty from his fate at either the hands of the FBI or his fellow mobsters.
The real power of this movie comes from the finely acted scenes between Pacino and Depp. The two actors deliver performances that are both real and heartbreaking as their friendship looms closer and closer to disaster. In his portrayal of Donnie Brasco, Depp came into his own as a screen actor with this film in finally playing a "normal guy" role while holding his own opposite Pacino. Pacino dials down his usual over-the-top bluster to give a nuanced, sympathetic portrait of a man desperate for friendship and very much in need of being someone's idol. Both are actors at the top of their game, and it is something to behold.
One last note: most critics took notice of Pacino's final scene in the movie. It is a master class in the use of subtle expression and gestures to suggest an inner state of turmoil and regret. There are a multitude of reasons why Lefty leaves the small drawer open before he leaves the room, and Pacino's performance makes you ponder many of them.