As it turns out, the glorious HBO series “The Sopranos” and the comedy feature “Analyze This” have driven the final nail into the coffin of that malevolent group of nasties known as the Mafia. They have made it virtually impossible to watch a mega-serious, ambitious mob melodrama like “Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story” and not be distracted with the question, “Yeah? So where are the shrinks?” “A Godfather’s Story” is, then, a throwback to the days before goodfellas began ratting out one another and making men offers they could afford to refuse — and mobsters were compelled to get in touch with their inner-assassin.
Showtime is hyping the mini as the first entertainment project told entirely from the perspective of a Godfather: 94-year-old longtime boss Joseph Bonanno. And based as it is on not one, but two Bonanno family-written books — dad Joe’s “A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno” and son Bill’s “Bound by Honor” — the main notion that “A Godfather’s Story” imparts is that Joe Bonanno — and by extension his son Bill, who is listed as an exec producer — are as close to white knights as men who order cold-blooded hits and torture their enemies with branding irons can be.
Indeed, Thomas Michael Donnelly’s sharply focused adapted teleplay tends to dismiss the routine intimidation of businessmen and payoffs of politicians and cops as the equivalent of good, sound investment strategy.
That “A Godfather’s Story” is well-acted and produced with vitality winds up being almost beside the point, unfortunately. Maybe it’s just the fallout of having endured too many longforms that made the Cosa Nostra the most overexposed and overglamorized group of human beings in world history, but the retrodding of so much old territory over a massive 4 hours, 50 minutes results in scads of unintended parody.
This is a mob drama with an overactive thyroid: bigger, heavier, grimmer, meaner, smokier and oft-bloodier, with more Italian surnames per square foot than in Naples itself. The cast sheet lists an astonishing 223 individual credited roles, which isn’t all that much less than one for each minute of film. The production also sets a modern record for cubic meters of cigar smoke ingested. To witness the lung-scorching array of stogies, it would be fitting for a Mafiosi to observe of his victim, “He smokes with the fishes.”
Opening 2-1/2-hour stanza spans several decades and nearly as many questionable accents. A now-aged Joe Bonanno narrates his own story (in the voice of Martin Landau) in flashback, beginning back in Sicily in 1904 when Joe’s daddy Salvatore (Costas Mandylor) tosses out the ceremonial first corpse, as it were.
Amid familial warfare, young Joseph (played by Bruce Ramsay) winds up taking on the Fascist movement in Italy in the 1920s and is forced to defect to America.
Once in the States, Joe shows such a knack for bootlegging and busting knees during Prohibition that he is welcomed into the family operation. By the time he turns 27, he will have been groomed by an intense, tight-lipped chap named Salvatore Maranzano (Edward James Olmos) into the youngest Godfather in mob annals. Everyone is so proud.
Part two of “A Godfather’s Story” looks and feels like an entirely different film, in part because a new actor (Tony Nardi) is called in with a completely different appearance and persona from the previous Bonanno player. Despite the identity crisis that extends to dual depictions of other characters as well, helmer Michael Poulette keeps the perpetual sense of menace, and the bodily fluids, flowing. He resists the temptation to go unbearably artsy on us, generally allowing the emotion of the material to speak for itself.
That second installment (kicking in around 1940) also stands apart from its first night in the way it attaches the Mafia to the government and politics.
According to Bonanno, the mob: aided the American effort during WWII; helped get Franklin Roosevelt elected president; got John Kennedy elected president; convinced Joe Kennedy that JFK should choose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate; and conspired to assassinate JFK (though Bonanno had nothing to do with it).
If you’re keeping score, that makes Joseph Bonanno pretty much the most influential political operative in American history.
As we learn in “Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story,” time surely has a way of scrubbing out the dirt and grime, and leaving history sparkling clean.
Tech credits are impressive.