It started, as most terrible things do, with a tweet. Gotti, the new biopic of New York mob boss John Gotti, was released to about 500 theaters on June 15 (after its planned December 2017 bow was cancelled ten days out). It didn’t officially screen for critics – always a good sign – though a few caught it at its Cannes kinda-sorta premiere, a muted affair in the festival’s smallest venue that, it was widely speculated, the fest granted to co-star/co-executive producer John Travolta in exchange for his participation in a pair of higher-profile events. Those critics weren’t impressed, and Gotti debuted on Rotten Tomatoes with a rare 0% aggregate score. A few days later, the tweet appeared.
“AUDIENCES LOVED GOTTI,” insists the online ad campaign. “CRITICS PUT OUT THE HIT. WHO WOULD YOU TRUST MORE? YOURSELF OR A TROLL BEHIND A KEYBOARD?”
At first blush, this sounds like the kind of “We did it for the fans, not the critics” nonsense that even as beloved a figured as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will trot out when their new movie tanks. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the critic, which is not to reflect popular taste but (put as simply as possible) to present opinion and analysis, informed by the history and context of the form, rendered in a manner that’s worth reading.
The social media manager for the Gotti movie (or, more likely, Vertical Entertainment or MoviePass, who paired to release it) can sneer, “Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it… The question is why??? “ But the answer is quite simple: critics don’t want you to see it because it’s a comically terrible imitation of a biopic, directed by Kevin Connolly with all the flair and nuance of a movie-within-a-movie on Entourage (on which he was a cast member). We don’t want you to see it because it pads its running time with more archival footage than your average documentary, features some of the most on-the-nose needle drops this side of Suicide Squad (Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” as it all comes undone, “Walk Like an Egyptian” when Gotti “walks” from another big trial, and most distressingly, “People Open Your Eyes and See” when his son is accidentally hit by a car), and features the bewildering sight and sound of two very contemporary Pitbull songs, “Bad Man” and “Don’t Stop the Party,” playing at, respectively, a bar scene and party scene set in 1985.
Of course, savage reviews alone cannot sink a bad movie; what makes Gotti’s campaign sillier is its insistence that audiences “loved” Gotti, when it was in fact both a critical and commercial failure, bringing in a paltry $1.6 million in its opening weekend (Travolta’s worst wide-ish opening in a quarter of a century) – and forty percent of that was reportedly MoviePass ticket sales, which is semi-embarrassing, since MoviePass’s new distribution arm plucked down a pretty penny to buy a stake in the picture. Put simply, that meant nearly half of those opening weekend tickets were ones the co-distributor had to buy themselves.
So where did this “audiences love it” thing come from? Well, as of last weekend, it had a 79% “audience score” on RT, a famously malleable metric for audience reaction; because it requires no proof of actually seeing the movie, organized campaigns have attempted to tank the scores of the Ghostbusters remake, Black Panther, The Last Jedi, and other movies deemed too “SJW”–minded. This is a new twist; a quick analysis of the sheer volume of positive user reviews for Gotti (about 7000 by the end of the first weekend – roughly approximate to the number for the record-breaking, far more widely-released Incredibles 2), and the number of them that were posted by first-time users (or users whose limited previous reviews included another MoviePass release, American Animals)… well it seems, if you’ll pardon the association with another, better Mob movie, fishy.
(In the week since this whole thing flared up, Gotti’s user rating has steadily dropped; it’s now at 59%, which is “Rotten” territory. And the “controversy” didn’t put asses in seats, either; receipts dropped a hearty 52% in week two. Nice try though, A for effort!)
But it took perusing the responses to a dumb, off-hand reply to that first “trolls behind a keyboard” tweet to realize there’s a huge crossover between Gotti Twitter and another active online community. It should’ve been obvious: here was a decidedly Trumpian campaign, insisting that reviews are Fake News, that Real Americans love this movie, and you should go see it to own the Elites. There was even a troll farm element! How could I have missed it?
All of that was before I saw the movie, which is… quite a piece of work, when viewed through that prism.
The most important thing to know about Gotti – and it’s been underplayed in most reviews, or at least second-handed to the sheer incomprehensibility and ineptitude of this thing cinematically – is that it’s a straight-up shine job. Based on the self-published memoir of Gotti’s son, John A. Gotti (aka “John Jr.”), it’s the story not of a notorious crime boss or even a savvy media manipulator, but of a tough but fair family man who was targeted by “the feds,” sold out by “rats,” and who died a saint’s death, complete with soaring strings. But more than that, it’s the story of a what a swell guy John Jr. is, sacrificing his own well being to honor his father, and showing admirable courage and bravery as he weathers the ordeal of being… tried for running a crime family.
The closing ten minutes or so (spoilers, whatever) are when Gotti’s peculiar sense of morality really comes into play. Gotti Sr. dies, and we’re treated to several minutes of archival photos and footage of Regular Joes saluting (literally!) the dead mobster, assuring the TV news cameras that “Everybody here knows that he was a great man!” and “Nobody’s a saint!” and “He didn’t kill civilians or regular people, normal people on the street or anything, he more or less killed his own kind.” To be clear, this is all presented straight-faced, with the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” playing, a tribute to the loss of a pillar of the community. (In a way, the pro-Gotti slant of Gotti is a bit of a relief; for decades, moralists have worried that films like Scarface or Goodfellas are tacit endorsements of a life of crime, but now there’s a movie we can point to for clarification. This is what glamorization looks like – Gotti is like The Godfather if The Godfather ended when Don Vito keels over.)
We then return to the trials of John Jr., as his mom (Kelly Preston, poor Kelly Preston) causes a scene in the federal courtroom by announcing, “This is a railroad job! Five trials in three years? Enough now! Enough! Fucking animals! They are railroading my son! They are doing to him what they did to his father… The government, they’re the real gangsters!” And then the film spends several more minutes attempting to clear the good name of John A. Gotti, even deploying a beyond-the-grave voice-over from dear old dad and a title card to explain all the lowlifes “the feds” made deals with try and take down John Jr.
“John had the courage to walk away from that life!” his lawyer tells the jury (and, conveniently, the audience). “In eleven years, the government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in five prosecutions! They shipped John all across the country in the most horrible conditions… but in the end, they could not provide even a single credible allegation.”
This… sounds familiar.
That’s the troubling undercurrent that runs throughout Gotti, a family-approved soft-focus portrait that downplays the severity of its protagonist’s crimes and screeches for the injustice of his son (who, by his own admission, led the Gambino family in his father’s stead for several years): that whatever John did was a-ok because he was smart enough to get away with it, that his ultimate conviction was not about his own crimes but the persecution of “the government,” and he should’ve gotten away with it anyway because everybody loved John Gotti. When he’s finally convicted for his crimes, in his fourth high-profile trial, his supporters in front of the courthouse started a riot; they threw bottles, overturned police cars, and chanted “FREE JOHN GOTTI.”
The U.S. Assistant Attorney General who helped make that conviction happen? Robert Mueller.
And maybe that’s why the Trumpism of Gotti is so noteworthy (critic Jordan Hoffman calls it “the most important movie of the year,” and he may not be wrong). The “fans” who were overturning cars in front of the courthouse went back to homes in districts Trump carried; they also responded to this proudly vulgar, retrograde New York crook who presented himself as the only honest man who could swim among the sharks, who only had to be his most Himself to win their love eternal. It’s an appeal grounded in outdated notions of bullshit masculinity and Alpha “strength,” coupled with a romanticizing of “taking what’s yours” – the idea that law and order doesn’t come into play when the aim is simply to smash and grab as much as you can before the feds come knocking with a warrant. It’s an ethos that destroys families when it’s practiced in the streets; it could do much worse in the Oval Office.
So it’s really not that complicated after all. Gotti people and MAGA people are bound by a very simple similarity: they both really love organized crime families.