“There are wolves, there are sheep. I am the sheepdog.”-Ret. Lt Col Dave Grossman, U.S. Army
Being a former cop, and now a Defense contractor with the United States Air Force Security Forces, I can tell you the work is rewarding, honorable and very satisfying. But with everything in life, there is always a downside. The most negative aspect of the job: seeing people at their worst and the realization all cops are not the same, or have the similar redeeming values. Recently in the news, a South Carolina police officer was charged with murder when he was videotaped shooting a subject in the back while running away from him rendering the subject lifeless. Not all cops are bad, or appear this cold-blooded, though the media certainly tries to sway you to believe that notion. A majority of cops I know or served with are good, hardworking people with families just like you and me; with that being said, today’s feature is none other than the legendary, award winning real-life crime drama Serpico (1973).
Frank Serpico, Al Pacino of Donnie Brasco (1997), is a rookie New York cop in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Serpico is an honest cop who is a real fast burner and ethical, but becomes distraught when he finds out that the city’s finest are corrupt, out on the take while they shake-down hoods for kickback. Due to Serpico’s honest, genuinely untouchable ideals, he finds it hard to enlist or trust a partner who shares his ideology. Serpico slowly watches his professional and personal life dwindle into a downward moral spiral of threats, paranoia, and loss of faith in the system when his whistleblowing seems to fall on deaf ears. Despite the dangers Serpico finds himself in, he upholds the oath he is sworn to, the values ingrained by his loving parents, and fights for the truth even when the corruption leads up the stairs of a “dog eat dog” world behind the closed doors of city hall.
Serpico is biographical crime drama directed by Sydney Lumet of Network (1976), screenplay by Waldo Salt of Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Norman Wexler of Saturday Night Fever (1977), inspired from the book of the same title by Peter Maas. Coming off the success of a cinematic hat trick with The Panic in Needle Park (1971), The Godfather (1972), and Scarecrow (1973), Serpico helped launch Pacino into legendary star status. Serpico was filmed on the rough streets of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Greenwich Village sections of New York City. The realistic cinema vérité of urban terrain emphasizes the grittiness of corruption and moral decay that is surrounding our struggling hero, Frank. Though the runtime is 130 minutes, this story of good versus evil is engaging and the time will rush by as if you were out on the streets working undercover with Frank, as he faces threats from criminals and fellow cops around every garbage littered street corner.
Pacino’s performance in my opinion is one of the best in his career and his beard inspired me to keep mine for the past six years. Pacino is very cool, as he’s a dedicated method actor of the prestigious Actors’ Studio. Pacino conducted his research by spending a vast amount of time with the real Frank Serpico to learn and dissect his subject, for a more authentic, raw and invigorating performance. Of all the films these eyes have seen, Pacino performance still touches me and is unforgettable after all these years. Originally planned for the role of Serpico was Robert Redford of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Paul Newman to play Bob Blair instead of Tony Roberts of Amityville 3-D (1983), and John G. Avildsen of Rocky (1976), to direct before Lumet took over duties.
Lumet knocks this feature out of the park and was excellent in his directorial vision to adequately capture the balancing act of excitement and agony that was in essence, Serpico’s life. The 1970s had many cinematic benchmarks and Serpico is one of those classics in that it has been referenced, parodied and honored countless times since its release. The word Serpico is now synonymous in our popular culture with “doing the right thing.” Overall, Serpico is a very honest, unique cinematic experience and character study that shouldn’t be missed by any fan of good cinema.
With all of the negative press in the news as of late between cops and citizens, I can see why people are questioning the individuals and institutions that were believed to be in place to protect and serve them. On that same note, I am here to tell you from experience, this abuse of power by police is the negative mindset of a few and, by no means, the way a majority of us were raised, trained, or mentored. Citizens should not fear your neighborhood police man, and police should not fear getting picked off just because he or she is on duty or in uniform.
If you want to get mad, blame the MEDIA. They are the culprits instigating and making these unfortunate occurrences worse with their skewed reporting, in hopes to succeed with an angle in return for ratings birthed out of fear and naivety. There ARE still honest cops and law abiding citizens out there; don’t let the tainted few spoil the perspective of the whole bunch.
Right can prevail over wrong, but unfortunately some severe prices have been already paid. As Serpico wisely stated, “The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry, it just gets dirtier.” Be safe and do the right thing out there, no matter what side of the blue line you walk on.