Fear City: New York vs The Mafia: Is Netflix’s new crime documentary worth watching?

Shot of the 5 heads of the New York crime family's in 1980
Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia documents the efforts of the FBI to bring down the bosses of New York’s infamous crime families. Pic credit: Netflix

Netflix has released a new crime documentary titled Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia and it tells the story of how the FBI formulated a plan to bring down all the bosses of the five New York mafia crime families.

From 1980 onwards, the FBI started organizing themselves more effectively and implemented a plan to target the Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, Colombo, and Genovese families, who had organized themselves into a crime commission, spreading fear and terror across America.

This super slick documentary is brought to you in three episodes by the same guys that brought us last year’s Don’t F**k With Cats, and it does not disappoint.

What is Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia all about?

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia focuses on the law enforcement side of events. The documentary shows interviews with FBI agents and never before heard recordings of actual gangsters.

It tells the story of how the FBI operation played out and the results of their efforts.

We also see interviews with two former Mafia wiseguys, including Michael Franzese, an actual captain from the Colombo family, and Johnny Alite, a soldier from the Gambino firm.

Now we should probably never trust a gangster, right?

But their tales certainly seemed genuine and compelling. They tell a somewhat stereotypical story of a lavish lifestyle of champagne, drugs, fast cars, and women, punctuated with extreme violence and murder.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the filmmakers likely struggled to get more former gangsters to chat about their lives.

The documentary paints a very grim picture of New York City in the 1970s; this is a city where the Mafia had infiltrated every fabric of society.

“The Bronx was on fire every night,” said one interviewee.

There was a seemingly endless cycle of murder, drugs, robbery, and violence, from which there was no escape. FBI agent Jim Kossler said the most frustrating thing was that the people believed nothing could stop the Mafia, and many agents agreed.

The situation wasn’t helped by the disorganized nature of the FBI’s strategy to tackle the threat. Three different agencies were battling the FBI in New York with three different strategies.

“Organized crime requires organized investigation,” said Kossler.

The documentary is primarily about the FBI getting its act together and formulating a plan that would bring down New York’s five families. We then get them to see them enact the plan by going after the godfathers.

The story is told in three acts, with the first setting the scene and describing the scale of the problem. The second act sees the FBI organizing and gathering information, and starting to get a picture of how the Mafia operates.

The final act shows the feds going in for the kill.

Through the interviews, it’s easy to tell that the FBI agents were extremely passionate and determined to do their jobs correctly. As well as seeing their hard work, we also see how they showed great bravery.

Their memories seem burned into their consciousness as they retell events from four decades ago like they only occurred yesterday.

Then there was Agent Joe Cantamessa, or “the man with the black bag,” of the Special Operations Squad of the FBI; he was charged with planting the bugs.

And he has a ton of spine-chilling tales of how he talked his way into the homes of some of the most dangerous men in America so he could plant a bug.

Talk about entering the lion’s den! The man appeared to be fearless. He and his team also showed great ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

In the course of the documentary, we also learn about various new techniques and unorthodox methods used by the FBI to gather evidence.

There’s a remarkable segment where we learn the best way to record a Mafia boss while he’s driving around town, and one of our former mafia guys also explains the best way to lose a tail.

Shot from the documentary
The FBI used surveillance as an important tool in the fight against New York’s mafia bosses. Pic credit: Netflix

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia targets the mob bosses

In the mid-80s, the FBI decided to target Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, boss of the Genovese family, the largest crime family in the U.S.

Through this operation, the FBI learned just how integrated the five families were and how they controlled or influenced organized crime right across the country through the Commission.

The FBI later learned the five families, through the Commission, had control over the multi-billion dollar construction industry in Manhattan. And in the 1980s, the business was booming.

However, this also proved to be their downfall.

At the start of the documentary, we are told that this is the story of New York, and it is a compelling story, one that Fear City does a lot of justice.

Is Fear City: New York vs The Mafia worth watching?

Is Fear City worth watching? Without question.

This is an exciting and suspenseful documentary that has you on the edge of your seat and leaves you wanting more. The final episode builds the tension to such a crescendo that your blood pressure will go through the roof.

It’s a serious topic, and it is treated as such. The Mafia is not glamorized in any way, and the average viewer should find themselves rooting for the FBI Agents.

The filmmakers take you through the FBI’s efforts to build a case step by step, and with perfect clarity. After watching, you’ll know exactly how to take down a mob boss, should you wish to do so.

It’s educational, but crucially, it’s also great fun and is a rip-roaringly good story.

Place this one on your list to watch right away.

If you appreciate an entertaining and informative Netflix documentary, then you might want to check out Monsters & Critics’ list of best documentaries on the streaming service for July 2020. The list includes Don’t F**k With Cats by the makers of Fear City.

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia is currently streaming on Netflix.

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