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Netflix Review

Fear City review: How Netflix’s new mafia documentary failed – Vox.com

Rudy Giuliani, wearing a navy suit with a flag pinned to its lapel, sits in a glassy conference room talking to a camera. “I was a tough kid. I was a boxer. I was taught not to be afraid of anything,” he says. “Could I have been a wise guy? Sure I could have. But in the ’70s, I became an assistant US attorney.”

Surprisingly, he’s not in a campaign ad. Giuliani is a major and exalted figure in Sam Hobkinson’s Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia, a new three-episode documentary series on Netflix. Of course he is. Giuliani, after all, had a large role in the legal strategy that helped law enforcement break the stranglehold that five major mafia families had on the economy and culture of New York City in the 1980s. It would be weird to make a documentary about the era without including him in it.

But Rudy Giuliani circa 2020 is not the same cultural figure he was back then. Nor is, for that matter, Donald Trump, whose connections to the mob in that era and apparent adoption of mob-like tactics are no secret. Fear City — a true crime tale for the “law and order” crowd, laced with nostalgia for the good ol’ days — pulls off some wild feats of lazy filmmaking in its storytelling. And the wildest of them all might be an almost complete absence of any acknowledgment that the past is barely in the past, when it comes to this topic.

Imagine making a documentary in 2020 about New York City, the mafia, and the 1970s and ’80s with only the thinnest possible reference to the current president of the United States — who, whatever you think of him, is a thoroughly relevant character. (The thin reference in this series comes at the beginning of the third episode, when someone says that if you were a real estate developer in New York in the 1980s, you had to deal with the mob. Fear City shows a few images of Trump while mentioning Trump Tower as a major development from a major developer, and plays a bit of a tape where a mobster mentions him. Okay, but: How did Trump deal with the mob? To what extent? Were his actions criminal? Don’t hold out for an answer. Fear City has already moved on.)

Or contemplate the decision-making that goes into including Giuliani — Trump’s future lawyer — as a pervasive presence and primary subject, alongside the New York attorneys and FBI agents he worked with, nearly all of whom are interviewed in similarly glossy settings, with everyone giving uninterrogated accounts as the film’s most reliable narrators. The more colorful former mobsters’ voices (mostly guys who did time or became states’ witnesses) become less significant once Giuliani and co. enter the picture — a working title for Fear City could well have been How Rudy Saved New York City from the Bad Guys: And That’s Why Law Enforcement Is Good. I had to scan the credits to confirm the series wasn’t funded by the Department of Justice.

Others can better speak than I to the historical veracity of Fear City. Was RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), the congressional act that gave law enforcement the ammunition they needed to finally indict mob bosses, as unambiguously good as the film makes it seem? How well does the way that former mobsters and FBI agents characterize those years of cat-and-mousing each other hold up against history? I have no idea, but its lack of voices outside of those directly involved in the cases leaves me skeptical.

Michael Franzese, who was a member of the Columbo crime family.
Netflix

I’m not here to quibble with Fear City on the level of facts, though, or even politics; what struck me was how bad it is as a documentary.

Fear City is shallow, toothless, and dull

It’s a boring choice to tell a story like this from the point of view of the FBI agents. Their perspective is well trodden in TV and movies. And New York’s relationship to the mob is not exactly hidden history.

It’s also crushingly dull to adopt the official narrative about what New York was like back then as the film’s de facto worldview, proposed in (unfortunately punctuated) on-screen text at the start of the first episode:

1970’s NEW YORK

A LAWLESS CITY PLAGUED BY DRUGS, VIOLENCE AND MURDER

That’s not entirely wrong, of course. New York was in rough shape in the 1970s, and nearly bankrupt.

But if there was anything else going on in New York at the time, you wouldn’t know it from Fear City, which provides little, if any, context. Nor would you know how ordinary New Yorkers were really affected by the state of things, except through the words of the mobsters and the FBI agents interviewed in the film.

There’s plenty of talk of the mafia’s control over unions, but no former union workers appear to talk about it. We hear stories about grocery store owners being exploited, but never hear from the actual grocery store owners. And women don’t seem to exist in this world at all. (Very few women speak throughout the entire series; the most interesting female voice is former FBI agent Charlotte Lang, who was the sole woman agent on the mob-busting team, and she only appears halfway through the third episode. Fear City would have been far more compelling if it had reoriented itself around her.)

What we get with Fear City isn’t “New York vs the mafia,” as the subtitle promises; it’s “the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office vs the mafia,” which boils down to a lot of talking about the specific ways bosses got bugged and doesn’t offer much of a sense of how New York was caught up in it all.

But the worst sin Fear City may commit is being … tedious? Something as pulpy and cinematic as cops chasing criminals should be loaded with juicy stories. Fear City somehow manages to both be far too simplistic and utterly lost in its own weeds. Watching it made me feel like an interloper in a conversation a bunch of guys were having as they relived their glory days to one another, only to realize 10 minutes in that none of them were particularly good storytellers. The film spends a lot of time talking about bugging the mafia, which is interesting enough at first, but then it goes on … and on … and on … and just when you think it’s finally moving on to a new topic, it goes back.

Former FBI special agent Joe Cantamessa in Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia.
Netflix

Documentarians can only work with the facts they have available, of course. But they make choices, just like other filmmakers, about what goes into their film and what doesn’t. They pick the voices they believe are important and leave out the ones that don’t matter, and they adopt narratives and choose which facts to use to tell their story.

The story told in Fear City is ultimately about heroic law enforcement and attorneys pursuing the mafia. It’s also about how glamorous and fun it was to be in the mafia. (Drinking Champagne comes up frequently.) It is emphatically not about what factors led to organized criminals becoming so powerful in New York.

It’s not about what kind of men were attracted to the mob, and why. Nor is it interested in the ethics of spying on civilians suspected of criminal activity, or curious about why women were so consistently sidelined (a question mob-movie godfather Martin Scorsese explored just last year in his film The Irishman). It is only glancingly concerned with why someone — like, say, Rudy Giuliani — would decide not to be a “wise guy” and instead become an attorney. (In part, it seems he, and others, hated what the mafia had done to Italian American communities, which would have been another great thread to tug on.)

Fear City is also not about why this particular moment in history matters, other than its potential for entertainment value (if you are very interested in the mechanics of placing a bug or the construction of legal strategies). But you don’t tell a story like this for no reason. At the end of Fear City, the film halfheartedly notes where some of its interviewees landed: jail and state’s witness status for the mob guys, mayor of New York for Giuliani, no note of the other agents and lawyers.

Then it turns ominous. The last scene is archival footage of a newscaster wrapping up the story by saying, “Who will the next generation of bosses be, and what kind of shadowy crime games will they play?” The footage cuts to a shot of lower Manhattan, with the Twin Towers prominent. We go to credits.

You can take away any number of messages from that directorial choice, but Occam’s razor suggests it’s a link between what we all know happened to the Twin Towers and how Giuliani brought down the mafia. Giuliani has long made political use of his governance during 9/11 and its aftermath, particularly since becoming President Donald Trump’s attorney in 2018 — something Fear City does not mention at all (again, seems relevant!).

No matter: The link is established. Fear City plays best as an extended attempt to remind us that the good guys were the good guys and Giuliani was the smartest guy in the room, no matter what he’s up to these days. It is not interested in how the mafia’s presence in New York shaped the city’s future, or what the events of the past reveal about the twisted present; it’s not interested in New York. It’s a reinforcement of accepted ideas, not a probing of history.

Sure, there’s a place in the world for uncomplicated nostalgia for the old days. But it should never be as vapid, or dull, as Fear City.

Fear City is streaming on Netflix.


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comes Netflix

Netflix comes to Google’s Nest Hub devices – Engadget

From today, Netflix is available to stream to Google’s Nest Hub and its Nest Hub Max, enabling you to catch up on your favorite shows wherever you’ve connected those devices. As with any Nest setup, you simply need to connect your account inside the Google Home or Assistant app. To celebrate, Google is boasting about the discounts its offering right now to get people to buy one of these devices for your kitchen or hallway.

If you’re not a paid-up member of the Nest ecosystem, you may have thought that Netflix was already on the platform. After all, Nest Hub devices have Google Cast built-in, and it can already stream other video services, including Hulu, CBS All Access and Disney+.

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Comedy Netflix

Netflix comedy ‘Space Force’ shows real military branch’s struggle to be taken seriously – NBC News

Space Force has a gravity problem.

That there is a Netflix comedy series, “Space Force,” out Friday lampooning the newest branch of the U.S. military isn’t the best sign that the American public is taking its intended mission seriously.

Initiated with great hoopla by President Donald Trump with a June 18, 2018, executive order, the Space Force came with a grandiose vision. “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” Trump said at the time, “We must have American dominance in space.”

Eighteen months later, the Space Force was officially established under the Air Force with the mandate of making good on the presidential bluster. Still in the development stage, the fledgling service has since struggled with an image problem — its real marching orders are far more grounded than the sci-fi name would suggest. It didn’t help shake that perception when the official symbol unveiled in January bore a noticeable resemblance to a logo from “Star Trek.”

Space Force Senior Enlisted Advisor CMSgt Roger Towberman, with President Donald Trump, presents the Space Force Flag on May 15, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images

“The idea of a Space Force was put forward about two years ago now and there’s been a lot of misunderstanding of what this is,” said Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“What it isn’t is Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise battling Klingons, or Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader — in fact, it’s probably going to involve very few military folk in space,” Burns, who served on the 2016-2017 presidential NASA transition team, said. “It’s more, as I understand it, enhancing our defensive posture with better satellites dealing with hypermissiles in the atmosphere, a lot of software development, a lot of remote sensors.

“All of it, according to the experts, is behind where it needs to be given the progress that both the Russians and the Chinese have made.”

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“That’s a very different Space Force than the public perception.”

The first 10-episode season of “Space Force” reunites showrunner Greg Daniels with his star from “The Office,” Steve Carell, who plays four-star Gen. Mark Naird, head of the titular branch. Co-starring John Malkovich, Jimmy O. Yang, Tawny Newsome, and Jane Lynch, the series orbits the current political landscape closely — with stand-ins for Trump, Anthony Scaramucci (former White House Director of Communications), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as the butt of the jokes.

John Malkovich as Dr. Adrian Mallory, Steve Carell as General Mark. R. Naird, Alex Quijano as Steve Hines, Roy Wood Jr. as Army Liaison Bert Mellows, John Hartmann as Chambers, Noah Emmerich as Kick Grabaston, and Brandon Molale as Clarke Luffinch in episode 105 of “Space Force” on Netflix.Netflix

“POTUS wants complete space dominance,” the fictional secretary of defense says at one point during the first episode. “Boots on the moon by 2024. Actually, he said b–bs on the moon, but we believe that to be a typo.”

As close as the first half of that dialogue hews to the president’s June 2018 promise to return American astronauts to the moon, “Space Force” is not close to a documentary. The fictional Space Force was filmed without incorporating the input of the real one.

“We welcome the opportunity to discuss providing support when requested,” U.S. Air Force Maj. William Russell, a spokesman for the Space Force, said by email. “Any program that opens up a conversation about the ongoing, vital national defense mission performed by the U.S. Space Force is a worthwhile endeavor.”

Just how worthy of an endeavor the military will find the new show is a question. Beyond the job title, there is little resemblance between Carell’s bumbling character and the distinguished four-star general who sits behind the real desk, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. And an episode featuring a trained chimpanzee forced to make a spacewalk to fix a satellite sabotaged by the Chinese makes a monkey out of what the real Space Force is trying to accomplish.

But what exactly is the Space Force attempting to accomplish, even as it’s dogged by memes, social media jokes and sitcoms?

“Our adversaries and competitors continue to threaten U.S. interests and endanger international security with new space weapons and tactics,” Russell said. “In April, the Iranians launched its first military satellite into the Earth’s orbit, while Russia recently performed an anti-satellite test.

“These are real-life examples on how the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing.”

The real message, though, isn’t helped by the hyperbole heaped on the Space Force by the president, who touted the development of a “super duper missile” during a Space Force flag ceremony earlier this month. Lost in the superlatives is that the core mission, to protect U.S. assets, including vulnerable communications and GPS satellites, has been a priority for successive administrations and tasked to the Department of Defense for decades.

Critics, though, debate whether or not it required a sixth branch of the military with startup costs likely up to $4.7 billion, according to the independent Congressional Budget Office.

“Space Force is not a partisan issue, it’s a President Trump issue,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a private organization dedicated to studying sustainability in space. “The debate about how best to organize the U.S. military for space activities has been going on for decades and it is not generally a partisan discussion.

“I think that the challenge comes in that President Trump has campaigned on this, he’s made it a feature of his rallies,” Weeden said. “So he has closely tied the issue of the Space Force to his personal political success.”

Weeden points to the parallels to the contentious debate over Ronald Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an expensive space-based missile-defense system that was derisively nicknamed “Star Wars” by its detractors.

“People were really confused at the time,” Burns said. “Also the technology proposed was way beyond our capability. At that point in time, there was no way you could provide a shield that could 100 percent protect from nuclear weapons.”

Technology has improved by light years since; the political debate over whether or not it is worth the cost remains the same.

Which makes the current space race a final frontier for comedy writers, just as a previous generation found humor in the specter of Cold War nuclear annihilation with the 1964 satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” And Daniels and the writers are careful to at least sometimes portray the fictional “Spacemen” as dedicated and competent as their 16,000 off-screen counterparts.

“Space is a happening place right now, from the entertainment industry, to popular culture, and the halls of the Pentagon,” Russell said. “Hopefully this comedy will encourage people to learn about the serious business of the real U.S. Space Force.”

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