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‘Frank Serpico’: A Portrait of the Legendary Whistleblowing Cop

‘Frank Serpico,’ a new documentary about the New York cop who famously exposed police corruption in the late 1960s and early 70s, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Antonino D’Ambrosio’s documentary Frank Serpico begins with the 81-year-old whistleblower gazing at his reflection in the bathroom mirror of his former Greenwich Village apartment. He passes his hand over the wooden frame, and recalls that he once had a dressing room mirror there. The gesture is brief, but unmistakably wistful. When he was an undercover cop at the New York Police Department, Francisco Vincent Serpico donned many elaborate disguises. 

In the opening sequence of Frank Serpico, the filmmaker accompanies “Paco” (a Spanish nickname, short for “Francisco”) to Brooklyn and to the homes where he lived as a child. When they visit the deli that was once his father’s shoe repair shop, Serpico’s voice cracks as he recalls his boyhood as the son of Neapolitan immigrants. A hero to many, especially to Italian-Americans, Serpico is still reviled at the NYPD for his 1971 testimony detailing systemic corruption in the department. In the documentary, he admits that he continues to receive hate mail. When his NYPD ally Sergeant David Durk died in 2012, Serpico’s friends sent him to a police website where some posts expressed regret over the fact that he had not yet joined Durk. 

Serpico was not the only police officer to testify at the Knapp Commission’s investigation into police corruption, but he was the only one who nearly died during a drug bust 10 months later. He was a member of the narcotics squad at the time, and was shot in the face through a half-open door while two other detectives looked on. 

D’Ambrosio approaches the incident from several perspectives, including cutting to the dramatization in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973). He also arranges a meeting between Serpico and retired detective Arthur Cesare—and lets the sparks fly. Cesare was there for the drug bust; in Lumet’s film, he is the cop standing in the stairwell. Cesare claims not to have known that there was no “10-13″ or “police officer down” radio call. Serpico survived because a person living in the building called 911. He retired from the NYPD shortly after his recovery, and stayed out of the spotlight for nearly four decades, going abroad in 1972. 

Through archival footage and photographs, skillfully conducted interviews, and a few clips from Serpico, D’Ambrosio brings a human dimension to his famous subject. David Burnham, the New York Times journalist who broke the story of police officers accepting bribes and engaging in extortion, based on information provided by Serpico and Durk, speaks to the Brooklyn-born cop’s agitated state-of-mind at the time. A neighbor in Serpico’s Greenwich Village apartment building, who recalls his “theatricality,” also describes Serpico’s lonely recovery period at home. Serpico remembers those months as marked by telephone calls from the precinct, so-called “bed checks” that were actually a form of harassment. 

In the same sequence, D’Ambrosio goes to a still of hate mail tacked to the door of Serpico’s apartment. A therapist explains that the former cop suffers from PTSD. Then, a police officer, who has great admiration for Serpico, eloquently explains that diagnosis by pointing out the difference between a static memory and the horrific event that “plays over and over again” in Serpico’s head. In each instance, the audience is compelled to see the man behind the legend.

To this day, Serpico says in the documentary, he approaches a door with trepidation. He still has lead fragments in his head, and the accident, or what many believe was an attempted murder, left him deaf in one ear. The hero cop is also haunted by a remark made by the police officer who responded to the 911 call on the night of the shooting. He once told another officer: “If I knew it was Serpico, I would have left him there to bleed to death. 

Despite a charismatic personality, Serpico remains an enigma, but not because D’Ambrosio’s efforts to get inside the man are ineffective. Sometimes, the filmmaker simply fails to trust his material. For instance, music is too often used to punctuate emotion that does not need underlining. Equally distracting are transition shots that are held too long, such as Serpico shoveling snow, and in the sequences in Brooklyn, traveling in the car from one location to the next. 

At one point in the documentary, Serpico reflects back on his former profession: “It was a calling to me,” he says. In print interviews, he has repeatedly blamed the NYPD’s institutional corruption for robbing him of his “calling.” What distinguishes D’Ambrosio’s bio-doc is that he consistently captures Serpico’s Herculean effort to disguise his bitterness. In doing so, the filmmaker strips him of his disguises and identifies the detective’s legacy, which is the legacy of every heroic personality compelled to action regardless of the consequences.