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Sincerely Sinister

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

“Gotti” is one of the better mob movies of the decade, and surely the best gangster portrait ever made primarily for television, sending to U.S. homes a seethingly persuasive performance by Armand Assante as a Cosa Nostra boss arguably still less famous in the public eye for his thunder than for his elegant tailoring.

HBO’s movie may change that. The standard caution applies here. Steve Shagan’s compelling teleplay is based largely on “Gotti: Rise and Fall” by crime reporters Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain, who candidly acknowledge in their book the potential flaws of such nonfiction, mentioning that some of their narrative is drawn from persons whose memories may be imperfect. Add to that the usual shorthand and license-taking imposed on even the best of TV docudrama, and you have a movie whose pristineness should not be taken for granted.

As highly watchable drama, though, “Gotti” bellows powerfully.

The real John Gotti now lives in the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., serving a life sentence without possibility of parole following his 1992 conviction on a host of federal charges in a trial that made headlines in New York for nearly three months.

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“Gotti” follows his bloody rise to leadership in the Gambino family and combustible rein as boss--during which he acquired the nickname “Teflon Don” for his ability to slide away from the Feds--until finally being felled in court by incriminating FBI tapes and the testimony of his murderous underboss, Sammy Gravano, played here by William Forsythe.

The criminal universe that “Gotti” depicts is one driven by extreme cynicism and a strict code of Cosa Nostra that takes precedence over the rules that guide rational society and overrides even personal loyalty. Gotti’s own mob mentor, Neil Dellacroce (Anthony Quinn), tells him he loves him but would “whack” him if given the order.

Although there’s no such order, “Gotti” still roars with violence. Yet its frenzy of “whackings” and “clippings” is never gratuitous under Robert Harmon’s measured direction, instead symbolizing the dichotomy that defines Gotti, at once the smirky, slicked-down, dapperly packaged celebrity gangster of magazine covers who epitomizes things contemporary and the old-style Mafioso ever yearning for “some real in-your-face Cosa Nostra.”

Assante’s cocky, rock-jawed Gotti is an anomaly, wrapping himself in crime-paid $2,000 suits as well as the flag, his twisted patriotism and vision of an atrophying America radiating from this lament that Shagan constructs for him: “There’s no rules, there’s no parameters, there’s no feelings. There’s no feelings for this country.”

So good is Assante, so fine-tuned to this defiant, self-righteous criminal, that you are convinced of Gotti’s sincerity, that he actually believes in the morality of his own corruption and that he is being unjustly punished by being shut away for life as if his crimes were political. “Is this America?” he asks.

* “Gotti” will be shown tonight at 9 on HBO.


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