Film Review: Serpico (1973)



These days, when "liberal" and "progressive" opinion makers openly celebrate the idea of Julian Assange dying in prison, it gets more and more difficult to imagine a world in which whistle blowers used to be celebrated as national heroes and global role models. Half a century ago one such person was the protagonist of Serpico, 1973 biographic drama directed by Sidney Lumet.

The plot, based on the book by Peter Maas, begins when NYPD plain clothes officer Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino) gets rushed to hospital following the incident during which he was shot in the face. As the doctors struggle for his life, Chief Sidney Green (played by John Randolph), his superior, suspects that the perpetrator might be another policeman. The plot then goes back a decade earlier and begins to chronicle Serpico's career in NYPD and the events that led him to this point. Serpico, who made his immigrant family proud by graduating at the Academy, works hard and shows enough talent and initiative to advance from uniformed street patrolman to plain clothes officer. But his idealistic zeal, hard-working ethic and willingness to try new methods of policing – whether humane talk to crime suspects instead of beating or wearing long hair and counterculture fashions in order to better blend in the street crowd – increasingly put him at odds with fellow policemen and his superiors. But the main source of conflict is Serpico's principled refusal to take bribes, after which he becomes pariah in the ranks of NYPD. His attempts to confront corruption through official channels, even when aided by like-minded individuals in NYPD or city administration, go nowhere and Serpico, in frustration, takes the unprecedented step of exposing culture of corruption to New York Times. After being transferred to Narcotics division, where huge amounts of potential money make him even less popular among corrupt partners and his life ultimately cheaper, Serpico will have to face his destiny during seemingly routine drug busting raid.

Serpico became one of the most successful films in Sidney Lumet's career. Not only it did received rave reviews and prestigious awards nominations, but also became big commercial hit, even spawning a short-lived television series dedicated to the protagonist. For Al Pacino, role of Frank Serpico represented another triumph which cemented his status as one of the world's greatest film actors and shown that after his masterful performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather he could create another iconic role. In inevitable comparisons between the two, character of Frank Serpico, with his clear moral alignment and uncompromising stance, might look simpler, but Pacino makes us forget this with his powerful performance, which was carefully and methodically prepared, including spending long time together with real Frank Serpico in order to provide as faithful representation as humanely possible. Serpico's efforts are also helped by his colleagues, which include many respectable character actors in bit parts. Some members of the cast, on the other hand, give away purely commercial considerations, most notably Cornelia Sharpe in role of one of Serpico's girlfriends, in which she mostly provides eye candy as antidote for otherwise depressive story. Memorable musical score by Mikis Theodorakis, which naturally glides between Mediterranean motives and jazz, works very well for the film, making protagonist's crusade feel noble and futile at the same time.

Serpico owes a lot of its success to talents involved, but it could be argued that the most of success came from being made at the best possible time. With fresh Vietnam War trauma and Watergate scandal rampaging on, American audience was increasingly feeling complete distrust of government and it felt natural sympathy to a single brave individual that challenged Powers That Be and was willing to risk his life doing so. Film was even better served by still relevant aftershocks of 1960s social turmoil, with Serpico being not only anti-establishment rebel, but enthusiastically embracing counterculture lifestyle not only for the purpose of his undercover work, bit also in his private life. It is this simplicity in pitting one generation against the other that makes Serpico inferior to some of Lumet's films that dealt with the same subjects with complexity. That includes Prince of the City, which covered the issue of police corruption with much more complex dilemmas and multi-dimensional characters. But even if Serpico today doesn't look as good as its early 1970s reputation might indicate, it is still the kind of films this world needs, just as it needs people like its protagonist.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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