America has a very distorted view of our world,” Mafia don Joe Bonanno (Martin Landau) says in the hard-to-believe but easy-to-enjoy epic Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story. ”What makes [the Mob] work is the belief in friendships, connections, family ties, trust, loyalty, and obedience.” What is this — La Cosa Nostra or the Boy Scouts?
With this depiction of mafiosi as virtuous straight shooters, TV has come a long way from the days of The Untouchables. On the 1959-63 ABC shoot-‘em-up, gangsters like Al Capone (Neville Brand) were cartoonish Bad Guys relentlessly pursued by the clean-as-a-whistle federal agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack).
Despite such black-and-white morality, The Untouchables whipped up myriad controversies. Government officials expressed concern about what effect the show’s rampant violence might have on impressionable viewers (sound familiar?). Italian Americans protested the prevalence of villains with vowel-heavy surnames. Even the U.S. Bureau of Prisons complained about scenes showing Capone getting preferential treatment behind bars. After the series’ ratings sank like cement shoes, the network quickly whacked it.
Perhaps wary of stirring up agita again, TV steered clear of the Mafia during the ’60s and ’70s, save for the occasional hood snared by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on The F.B.I. or Robert Blake on Baretta. But after NBC’s 1977 airing of The Godfather films proved an offer TV viewers couldn’t refuse, networks gave Mob dramas another shot in the ’80s.
The Gangster Chronicles: An American Story (featuring future spouses Brian Benben and Madeleine Stowe) got gunned down by NBC after three months in ‘81. The net’s Crime Story (1986-88) lasted a bit longer, but the intricate story lines — in which ’60s Chicago cop Dennis Farina chased mobster Anthony Denison all the way to Las Vegas — proved too complicated for casual viewers. The same fate befell another of the decade’s best dramas, CBS’ Wiseguy (1987-90), even though stars-to-be Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci sparkled in recurring gigs as two of undercover agent Ken Wahl’s organized-crime targets.
In the ’90s, networks became convinced that gangland series like CBS’ EZ Streets wouldn’t win over viewers on a weekly basis. Instead, miniseries like CBS’ The Last Don and NBC’s Witness to the Mob attracted audiences’ attention in machine-gun-like bursts. Then along came The Sopranos. Free of network censorship, HBO’s hugely successful drama has created a rich, multifaceted portrait of the modern mobster (James Gandolfini) as a seemingly decent guy whose job occasionally requires him to murder people.
There’s no such moral complexity to Bonanno, perhaps because it’s based on books by the now-nonagenarian Joseph Bonanno and his son Bill (also one of the movie’s exec producers). We watch as rumrunner Joe becomes the youngest don ever at 26, saves a cat, opposes Mussolini, and is shocked to learn of Mob involvement in drugs and JFK’s assassination. This guy puts the good in goodfella. The film offers fine performances from Bruce Ramsay as the young-adult Joe and Edward James Olmos as his mentor (he must’ve picked up tips on playing Italian from his wife, The Sopranos’ Lorraine Bracco). And if Bonanno seems derivative of The Godfather — from its methods of murder (e.g., a restaurant rubout) to its soundalike score — at least Mario Puzo is no longer around to take offense.