By Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain
New York Daily News
August 11, 1996
WE like what Hemingway said about dealing with Hollywood --
you throw them your books, they throw you their money.
A funny line, but we doubt he was really that cavalier as his
books became wards of another medium and many people began to
re-stir what he cooked up alone. Helpless maybe. Amazed and
shocked. But not cavalier. We spent three years fretting over
"Gotti: Rise and Fall," the story of how John Gotti
became the Al Capone of his media-enriched time. We couldn't
become suddenly indifferent when HBO purchased the film rights --
just as people don't stop fretting when their children grow up
and leave home.
The worry is greater with a non-fiction book like ours. Hollywood
has a tough time with true stories because life is not neat; it's
difficult to pick through the confusing and partial fingerprints
people leave and find the ones that will add up to a satisfying
drama "based on a true story." The mere act of choosing
which prints to use alters the end "truth."
It is even more difficult when the story, like ours, does not
have a traditional protagonist, a hero, someone to root for. John
Gotti is immensely interesting, even captivating, but impossible
to cheer. In the pursuit of power and profit, he was a murderer.
To solve that problem, HBO could have turned "Gotti"
(airing on Aug. 17) into a trite good-versus-evil story by making
its namesake the antagonist and creating a composite hero out of
the many prosecutors, agents and cops who opposed him over the
years. But in truth, Gotti brought himself down. That is the
story, and happily it's the one HBO tries to tell.
The filmmakers remained keenly aware of their
protagonist problem, however. And so one of the main characters
says, "John is complicated, but his motives are always
That was hardly true, as the movie itself demonstrates. (Gotti
orders one murder only because the victim allegedly bad-mouthed
him.) The line is an example of how "Gotti" tries to
airbrush warts away and make Gotti stand apart from the moral
squalor around him. He is against drug-dealing, he is a solid
family man, he really doesn't want to kill some of the people he
In the biggest paint job of all, he opposes taking revenge
against a motorist who accidentally killed his son. This revision
is especially odd; if ever an audience could understand a man's
violence, particularly a man from Gotti's vengeful world, it
would be over the loss of a child.
Still, much to our relief, "Gotti" is worth watching.
It's gritty and exciting; its gangsters are authentically evoked,
from their frequent inanity to their brutal wickedness. Armand
Assante, as Gotti, is great. And so is William Forsythe, in the
difficult role of Salvatore Gravano, the mob's Judas. Much to our
amazement, we are compelled to add that where "Gotti"
fails, it's usually because it tries to tell too much story.
It took us 600 manuscript pages to capture the arc of the story,
which occurs on a landscape crowded with characters and
multi-layered events -- and within the context of a criminal
tradition, Cosa Nostra, that's coming apart under the relentless
pressure of a well-funded law-enforcement establishment. The
movie zips across two decades and two distinctly different eras
in the Gambino family of Cosa Nostra. Watch carefully, or else
you're going to miss something important. Characters come and go
quickly -- usually with a bang. Plot points turn on a dime.
Trying to tell too much, the movie sometimes doesn't
tell enough. How did Aniello Dellacroce (Anthony Quinn) become
John Gotti's mentor? Rushing along, the movie offers only a hint,
then only when Dellacroce dies, halfway through. Dellacroce does
a lot of heavy lifting for Gotti; we need to know why early.
(Dellacroce's own son was a drunken bum; Gotti was a mirror for
Dellacroce's memory of himself as a young man.)
The movie also fails to help us understand why Gotti is such a
power in the Gambino family at such a young age. He's flashy,
vain, temperamental, disrespectful of superiors -- all true, all
potentially fatal defects in "the life." So why is he
such a success? (It's because he did the family's dirty work;
people were afraid to take on him and his crew.)
Careful viewers will notice a few annoying inconsistencies too.
Gotti is said to be a "big earner," yet his crew
members complain they don't have "two cents to rub
together." The Gotti crew is picked for a hit because it is
not known in a certain part of town, yet in the same scene Gotti
is ordered to take along a man from a crew in that part of town.
Then there are the occasional and embarrassing outright factual
errors. One character is identified as the secret boss of a
Teamsters local; when he dies, people want to take over his
Similarly, a reporter covering one of Gotti's three courtroom
victories exclaims that the "Dapper Don" is "the
first person ever" to beat a federal racketeering case.
Whew! Our apologies to all those lawyers who won cases for
clients in the first 16 years of federal racketeering law.
You might be thinking, who are we to complain? Isn't the movie
based on our book and weren't we "consultants" on the
movie? Well, technically yes. But we were consulted only
miminally. That's Hollywood. Paying for advice it doesn't want to
Anthony Quinn, who used to hang in the restaurants
and clubs Gotti also favored and who attended Gotti's last trial
to show his support, had a lot more impact on the movie than we
did. The movie's theme -- one should never betray a friend --
comes right out of an interview Quinn gave to one of us on the
courthouse steps in 1992.
"I'm not here to sit in judgment of Mr. Gotti," he
said, "but in judgment of a friend who betrays a
It was a reference to Salvatore Gravano taking the stand and
testifying against Gotti. "Friendship is a sacred
thing." Quinn added. "When I was growing up in East Los
Angeles, the worst thing was to be a snitch."
In the movie, Gotti gets several speeches in which to address
this idea. Men like Gravano, he says, don't have
"parameters" or "self-esteem."
"All of us break the rules sometimes," he adds.
"We say we don't but we break the rules. We dip into the
other guy's pocket...but no matter what...no matter what...you
don't rat. It's the one Cosa Nostra rule that you never break.
You never rat."
People who believe the movies glorify gangsters will choke on
that one: Ah, we get it. In Cosa Nostra, it's okay to murder,
pillage and cheat. But, darn it, don't ever betray a friend.
The same critics might also object to some other comments Gotti
gets to make about the federal government. At times, he sounds
like a Freeman from Montana. "(The) Feds have no
parameters," he says. "They'd wire their own mother for
The federal racketeering law under which Gotti was finally
convicted has been used to break Cosa Nostra's stranglehold on
many aspects of life and commerce across the country. But to the
movie's Gotti, it was "designed by rats for rats."
This being Gotti's movie, the lines are endemic, but at least one
character -- an agent, for instance -- should have been inserted
to offer a little information about the nature and stakes of the
government's war against Cosa Nostra.
Maybe by now, you're thinking, what would you guys have done
differently? Fair question. We would have narrowed the time
frame. We would have ended it in the same place, with Gotti's
conviction, but started it only nine years earlier, when several
of Gotti's men -- including his best friend and his brother --
were arrested for dealing heroin.
Those arrests triggered everything that happened in the Gambino
family and to Gotti from there on out. The then boss of the
family had forbidden drug dealing under a penalty of death, not
because he was such a noble sort, but because he feared the harsh
sentences available to prosecutors in drug cases would encourage
gangsters to become informers.
The arrests put pressure on a fault line that existed between two
wings of the family. Without them, a plot against the boss
nominally in charge of both wings might not have taken off.
Without the plot, which Gotti engineered, the spectacular double
murder that shot him to power might not have occurred. But all of
it did occur, and it's the stuff of a good drama -- conflict,
crisis, confrontation, resolution.
In "Gotti," the story is so shoehorned it's hard to
follow. Instead, we get comparatively unimportant scenes about an
early murder in Gotti's career, about the time he served in
prison for that murder and about Carlo Gambino, the family
patriarch, who died in 1976.
As we said before, however, "Gotti" is still worth
watching. By himself, Assante will keep you tuned in. He preens,
fulimates, growls, explodes -- just like Gotti. To its credit,
HB0 took on a tough subject -- as it has before, with Roy Cohn,
Stalin and Jackie Presser -- and came up with a film that's close
to the way it was. We shudder to think what a traditional
Hollywood studio would have concocted out of the same material.
So on Aug. 17, we'll be watching, having a party
with friends and toasting people who try to do the right thing.
Authors note. (That's us on the left, not a couple of gangsters
or movie actors.) Since writing this review, we have regretted
failing to note that in an effort to portray the villain of the
movie, Sammy Gravano, even worse than he was,
"Gotti" puts him into a murder -- the revenge slaying
of a Gotti neighbor -- that he had nothing to do with. Gravano
freely admitted to 19 murders and he certainly would have freely
admitted this one, if he had anything to do with it.