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Fear City review: Netflix's slick and stylish doc is more than a gripping real-life version of The Wire

If you thought The Wire was exciting, wait until you see the real thing, says Helen Daly.

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia - Paul Castellano
Published: Wednesday, 22nd July 2020 at 7:00 am

There's something incredibly gripping about stories of the Mafia. Look at the success of gangsters in pop culture and you'll see we positively love them - the likes of The Godfather, Goodfellas and Peaky Blinders set the precedent for gritty, hard-hitting and captivating series. Only last year, Netflix made their way into the mob world with The Irishman.


Now, they've combined this apparent passion for the Mafia with their skill for producing slick and fascinating documentaries with Fear City: New York vs The Mafia.

The documentary - from the makers of Don't F*** With Cats - centres itself on the FBI mission to shut down The Five Families of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, mobsters ruled the entirety of the Big Apple for years, but in particular, those two decades were the peak of the Italian American dynasties.

The tense three-parter starts with the FBI looking well behind the times, struggling to even arrest just the soldiers, let alone the bosses or the underbosses of huge criminal families.

But that all changed with the RICO theory. Professor G. Robert Blakey lectures on the theory in Cornell University and instructed the FBI to consider each family as an organisation - to get the boss, you'd have to close the business down.

Thus, five forces were established to try and take The Five Families down - all at the same time. The result of which became the real life version of The Wire.

And the documentary is just as slick as the renowned HBO series. Intercut with unseen FBI footage, the series follows a tight timeline where we meet different cops from across the operation and learn about their in-depth experience on the case - at one point, we even see footage of The Black Bag Man fitting a phone bug in a Gambino captain's house while the target hovers over him ominously.

The (quite literal) Wire references don't just stop there, Fear City even goes so far as to have a catchy theme tune - Hard Times by Baby Huey and The Baby Sitters, to be precise. We see the FBI putting The Wire's surveillance tactics into action - though of course one must remind one's self this came before the HBO series.

Throughout the course of the three-part series, you quickly realise that the organised crime going on in New York City goes way beyond one family - get The Commission and crumble the whole gang. And that's just what Rudy Giuliani did.

Fear City is very much a hero's tale - gone are the glamorous rapscallions from Peaky Blinders, who always seem to come out on top. Enter: the investigators who tried every trick under the sun to put an end to the reign of terror looming over NYC.

What could be a same-old police procedural, Fear City puts the viewer directly in the heart of the case, examining photographs, video footage and wire recordings that feel very present and give the illusion you're on the case. It's all very riveting and exciting thinking you're on to the biggest case New York has ever faced.

Anyone with a mild interest in the Mafia will find this essential viewing, but it's also another excellent Netflix documentary, following a line of successful wins for the streaming giant. What's most impressive is Netflix's ability to capture a taste you didn't know you had for a theme, delve right into the depths of the topic and leaves you with a fully whetted appetite.

Fear City has "water cooler" written all over it - it's just a shame we can't gather round one for a good old gossip on Cosa Nostra.


Fear City: New York vs The City is now available to stream on Netflix. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.


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