I can’t think of a real life cop who is more famous than Frank Serpico. Ever since the film Serpico was released in 1973, people around the world knew the name of the cop who singlehandedly attempted to end corruption in the NYPD. Al Pacino made the character famous, and the name continues to live on in pop culture, but now we have the documentary Frank Serpico to tell the story from the man himself. The film that follows is not just about the man and his crusade against the NYPD, but it also serves as a reflection with the man 45 years following his time in the department. Back then he took a bullet for speaking out about the corruption. Have the man or ideals changed over the years? That is what the documentary sets out to find out.
The film opens up with Frank discussing how his daily ritual before work was to act as though he were about to put on a performance. Well, it’s been 45 years, and the man continues to perform; that is the first thing that stands out to me about this production. He has no problem admitting that he is a bit eccentric, but what you can’t miss is that he seems to be playing the role of Frank Serpico rather than simply being himself. In interviews with friends and fellow officers, this is brought up as they discuss how Frank seems to feel obligated to live up to certain expectations that the film and his celebrity has created. Personally this was something I wish was explored more so we could truly have a chance to understand the man, because everything else that follows in the film just seems like an act. I don’t fault Frank for this, but rather the director Antonino D’ Ambrosio for not wrangling his subject in. Is Frank’s story any less interesting because of this? Not a chance, because Frank carries this documentary along from start to finish.
The film does explore Frank’s life before being a cop, everything from his childhood up to him being a social worker. While we don’t get to spend too much time hearing about Frank before he was a cop, we get enough to understand that he was always a man with a big heart for doing the right thing.
“My father said never run when you’re right.”
Running is the last thing Frank ever did. As the film gets into the organized payoffs that went on in the NYPD while he was a plainclothes cop, here is where we get feedback from other officers who worked alongside Frank at the time who were also trying to do the right thing. Things get all the more interesting as Frank takes us along to the spot where the setup went down and he was shot and left for dead. Seeing him walk through the apartment hallway and tell the camera how it all went down is a bit unsettling, especially since after all these years he still has fragments of the bullet still inside him.
With archival footage from when Serpico testified against the department, to the footage we get from the Serpico film as well, there is plenty of footage to keep things interesting rather than simply watching talking heads throughout. One of the more interesting stories gets into the fact that as the film was being developed there was a point when Frank was going to play himself. As we all know, Al Pacino went on to take the role that resulted in an Academy Award nomination for best actor. But there’s another story where Frank managed to get kicked off the set for calling “cut” during one of the scenes, and it’s these kinds of stories that make his over-the-top persona so interesting to watch.
The biggest takeaway I get from the film is how the man was willing to sacrifice so much, and the public seemed to embrace him and his cause, yet 45 years later there continues to be a problem with corruption in the system. Frank continues to fight the good fight on news programs and is calling out corrupt officials, but it still isn’t enough and never will be enough, because there simply are not enough men like Frank to step up and do the right thing. It’s why Frank is such a fascinating figure to watch. With his charisma and the performance for the cameras, it’s his ideal to do the right things that matter most, and it gives us hope that perhaps there are more men and women like him who are out there fighting the good fight.