Making the Case for Fear City: New York vs the Mafia

Former U.S. Attorney’s Officer Jon Liebman talks about getting away from the glamour of mob movies and setting the journalistic record straight in Fear City: New York vs The Mafia.

Photo: Netflix

Director Sam Hobkinson’s Fear City: New York vs The Mafia details the historic investigation and prosecution of New York’s criminal Commission. The resulting convictions of the law enforcement actions marked an end of an era. New York was no longer under the thumb of mob bosses; businesses maintained control of their goods, manufacturing and trafficking; the thin blue line thickened.

As the documentary points out, the Mafia was untouchable when they controlled illegal street trade, but when they made offers which legitimate business couldn’t refuse, law enforcement stepped in and cleaned up. Fear City: New York vs The Mafia depicts this specific period in New York as a war zone. “The Bronx was burning every night,” Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa says in the documentary.

While much of the day-to-day peril of city living has been exaggerated into legend, this is what drew a British director to a project on the Five Families: Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luccese.

“We grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in the UK. For us, New York was a mythical place—violent and exciting,” Hobkinson said in a press statement. “You wouldn’t go there, because everyone said it was too dangerous—and for that reason, it was exotic. This was an opportunity to tell a panoramic tale of New York, from the wiseguys on the streets all the way up to the lawmakers in City Hall, at the most dramatic point in its history. It was also an era that had its own cinematic heritage that we were all inspired by.”

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Jon Liebman, who is chairman and CEO of Brillstein, worked for four years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York around this time before he was appointed Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division. The Council on Foreign Relations member and Yale College summa cum laude graduate now puts his expertise to use on investigative documentary journalism. He was Executive Producer of the HBO documentary In Memoriam: New York City 9/11/01, which raised over $1 million for the victims of the Twin Tower attack. Liebman spoke with Den of Geek about expanding how the lens captures street legality.

Den of Geek: You’re mainly associated with TV series like Central Park and Sorry for Your Loss. What drew you to long-form documentary journalism?

Jon Liebman: I got involved in this story because my background brought me there. I was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, which is the office that prosecuted the Commission case, and I got there after the case was over. That case was tried in 1986, and I got there in ’87. So I knew about this case, and I knew a lot of the people involved.

What brought me to this project was the opportunity to work with Netflix and with Raw TV in London, and to be able to tell the story about the people who investigated and mounted this very complex and interesting case to bring down the heads of the Mafia commission.

This is the second documentary series that I’ve been involved in. The first one was something called In Memoriam, which was about 9/11. That was on HBO. I think the great thing about these kinds of documentaries is that you can really tell a story and dive in pretty deeply, and that allows you to tell the story with integrity. You don’t have to finish it in 30 minutes or an hour. It allows you to really show who some of the characters are, show their challenges, and be able to see all different sides of a story.

Netflix has been at the forefront of long-form journalism since Making of a Murderer. Moving forward, how do you see Fear City in the history of documentary filmmaking?

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I hope that it meets the level of quality that Netflix has achieved in a number of the great documentary series that they’ve supported. My hope is that people experience the reality and intensity, and suspense of this kind of investigation and prosecution. That’s a success to me if people kind of get a real feel for it, and see how difficult and challenging this kind of thing is, and what a success can be in a complex criminal case.

When you were working in the U.S. Attorney’s office, were you involved in any of the mob trials?

Yes, we had, at that time, an organized crime unit that was run by Louis Freeh, who became the Director of the FBI later. I was in that division for a period of time, and it got involved in a number of mob prosecutions after this case was completed.

I was not involved in this case. I was a young lawyer working in New York City. I was actually clerking for a federal judge in the same courthouse where this trial occurred, and the buzz of that trial, the media circus around it, and all of the attention on the trial made me wander into that courtroom where it happened a number of times. It was actually pretty hard to get in there because it was a big, big trial. The whole courthouse was buzzing, as you can imagine, when you know that the leaders of the mafia families were on trial after Paul Castellano had been killed.

It was this incredible atmosphere, and it was one of the things that led me to want to go into the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and see what it was like to be a federal prosecutor, which is one of the best jobs I ever had.

Since the beginning of movies, the FBI has had a record of approving only positive portrayals before giving their seal approval. Did you have to deal with the Bureau?

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We didn’t deal with the Bureau at all, really. The filmmaker, Sam Hobkinson, and his team worked directly with the ex-FBI agents who you see on camera. And they were very forthcoming, and also, I think, acknowledged some of the challenges and difficulties in the investigation.

Sam Hobkinson grew up in England. How did he come to do a piece on the New York mob?

Raw TV, which is a production company in London with which Sam has associated, produced the documentary along with our company, Brillstein Entertainment. And Sam and the folks at Raw, growing up in London, really had a feel for what was happening in New York, and they were enamored of much of New York and the vibe of it. The story of the mobsters, I think, they felt was maybe more glamorous than it really is. It’s like a bunch of guys from London who kind of looked over the pond, and this was one of the stories they found fascinating.

The defense doesn’t get much air time. I read that Sam Hobkinson tried to get Carmine Persico and other figures.

Yeah. The defense got a little time. Some of the defense lawyers passed away. James LaRosa, who was one of the big lawyers in the case, had died. I think there’s maybe one or two of the lawyers, I forget, who were interviewed for the series. And then Carmine Persico, of course, defended himself, but he didn’t participate in this. That’s one of the challenges when you do these things, and 35 years later. You kind of get who’s around.

Do you think Fear City de-glamourizes mob life?

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I think it tells the reality. I’ve seen some people comment that it’s not about the glamour. I think that the mobsters speak for themselves on the tapes, and the FBI agents and the prosecutors get to speak for themselves. The surveillance photos are there, and the way the case was constructed is laid out. So I think it’s really more about what’s real than about the “glamour” of the Mafia, which is something that you see more in movies and fictional series.

Episode three opens with news reports that the city is prospering 10 years after being bankrupt. Do you think the mob had anything to do with this prosperity?

Well, they certainly capitalized on it. They capitalized on the building boom that occurred, and they capitalized on their infiltration of unions, as well as the establishment of the Concrete Club. I think they were able to benefit from a construction boom that certainly has led to the changing skyscrapers of New York. But in my point of view, I wouldn’t say that they made it happen or anything. I would say it was more that they benefited from the economic changes by capitalizing on their position.

Also in Episode three, the documentary brings in Donald Trump’s dealings as a real estate developer. Was there anything you were trying to say in that?

My sense is that the point, that a number of the participants made, that the construction industry had to deal with the Concrete Club, and that was something that was true if you were in construction. But I don’t think there was any intention to make a specific point at the heart of a specific project.

Do you think we’ll ever see a mainstream series on something like the unmarked federal vans, which have been reported in Oregon?

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I’d love to. That would be amazing. What’s happening in Oregon is crazy, and I think with the development of people taking cell phone video of what’s going on and citizen journalism, I think there’s a real good chance that we’ll see a lot more great stories coming from people who are at the scene of these situations. Whether they’re crimes, like we saw with George Floyd, or with what’s happening in Oregon and other places in the country. I think that there’s definitely going to be lots of good journalism that comes out of it.

If you wanted to do something like that, how would you get it started?

I think it always starts with people who are on the ground and involved. People who are knowledgeable and have specific information. I think that’s, a lot of times, the way these things start. So you’ve got people who’ve got a story to tell because they were particularly involved, or they have video that they shot, or maybe somebody who was involved in this, who becomes a whistleblower or something. I think that’s the way these things start.

A lot of networks right now are pulling police-positive shows. Has this docu-series gotten any blowback or any criticism because of that?

I’m not sure whether they’ve really received any kind of a reaction to it. It hasn’t aired yet, so we’ll see. I haven’t heard that so far.

In a lot of movies, and on The Sopranos, the law seems to be if there’s not a crime being committed, the police have to stop listening to surveillance tapes.

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Would the investigators have had to turn off the tape if the conversation was just about Castellano’s affair with the maid and not about criminal activity?

It’s called minimizing it, and you’re absolutely right: What the law requires is that if they hear something that is not connected to possible criminal activity, then they have to stop listening and pause the tape. Then they can come back after 30 seconds or something, and keep listening. I don’t know what minimizing they did, but sometimes what happens is that in order to find out that it’s something that you shouldn’t be listening to, you have to listen to it. If she was a source, then she’s a person of interest.

One of the investigators says in the documentary he sent greeting cards to Castellano.

I think he was saying it was a little bit of psychological opposition tactics. Clearly, these guys knew they were under investigation, so it was a little bit of “We’re watching you.” It seems like what he was talking about.

Sam Hobkinson once mentioned being inspired to do this by watching Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Coppola also made The Godfather. I was wondering how you see gangster movies as a law enforcement person?

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I’m not a law enforcement person now. It’s been 30 years for me since I was doing that, but I just loved those movies. I loved the storytelling. In The Godfather and The Godfather II, I love how deep you get into the families, and how you get to know the characters in those movies. So it’s just wonderful filmmaking.

What I’m drawn to in these kinds of docu-series is digging deep and getting into the weeds as much as you can so that people can understand how things happened, how things worked, what people went through. And it sounds like you’ve interviewed a number of the people, and you get it, which is great. Because a lot of times when you see a one-hour show or something, you don’t get to touch on the different aspects of a story. I think here, with three hours of it, we were able to touch on the power and influence of the Mafia in episode one, the investigation in episode two, and then the take down of the case and the prosecution of the case in episode three. So it had room to breathe.

Are there any plans for Fear City 2?

Not at the moment, but it would be great to see what the reaction to this is, and see what could come next. Just I think, as you know from having lived in Fear City, that there are plenty of stories to tell that go beyond this, and every one of those guys that you look at in the documentary, that you see in the surveillance photos or on tapes, could be a documentary in and of themselves.Fear City: New York City vs The Mafia is available to stream on Netflix.