Deciphering City by the Sea: What Happened in Reality vs. H’wood

“There is a point,” columnist Jack Mathews of the Daily News once wrote, “when a film that is purportedly based on facts violates the privileges of creative license.”


“Behind Enemy Lines.” “A Beautiful Mind.” “Ali.” “The Hurricane.” All four of these are films released within the past 24 months that have been hauled on to the carpet by the news media for their use of creative license in adapting a reallife event or person to the screen. City by the Sea, perhaps because it aspires to be more of a popcorn film than a true drama, has been given a pass here.

“Sea,” released on September 6, is the story of police officer Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro), who begins investigating a murder, only to find that his son (James Franco), with whom he has a fractued relationship with, is the killer. But is this really the truth- is the film an accurate description of what really happened in late 1996 in New York’s Long Beachr

In reality, the police officer that the story centers on, Vincent LaMarca retired in 1989 and was never part of the active investigation to find his son. As I had said in a previous article on the subject at The Trades, the film is both a distortion of reality and it isn’t. The people the actors portray certainly exist, but the drama has been amplified from real life events and the characters have been greatly tweaked from their real-life counterparts.

But what caught my eye was an interview Vincent LaMarca did with EclipseMagazine.com’s Tiffany N. D’Emidio the day before the film opened. When asked about the experience of seeing the transition to film, LaMarca admitted that the film had it’s problems.

As he said there: “Well, it was rather impressive to see Robert DeNiro on the screen playing Lt. Vincent LaMarca. I guess it was the shock value of it. But I was happy with the way the movie came out so I have no problem. I have no problem with it. I think it went over pretty good. They did a good job making the movie. They Hollywooded it up where they needed to. It’s not completely factual. But the main part of the story was held. Where they dress it up so to speak, they needed to I guess. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been nice.” Later, in the article, he admits he had some concerns, but they mostly were on humanizing his son.

So, let me see if I get this stright: They make him a hero in the film, rather than the passive background character he really was in the real-life events that the film is based on, have him played by one of the film landscape’s most well-regarded stars and he becomes a fan of the film, it seems. We should all be so lucky. Having read the source material, I can say there are great differences between what happened in real life and in the film.

As I mentioned earlier, Vincent has become an active-duty New York City homicide detective in the film adaptation, which greatly changes the dynamic of the story, if not the perspective. For instance, upon finding out that his son has a role in a murder, he gives in his gun and his badge to help his wayward son.

Some other changes evident in the film:
1. Joey has been given an 8-month-old son, named after his grandfather, Angelo. This addition to the LaMarca clan helps play up the fact that he, too, may be fated to follow his father’s and great-grandfather’s self-destructive paths. One of the scenes in the end has Vincent bringing his grandson to some of the places in Long Beach that he had brought Joey to as a child, as well as singing a melancholy song to him that he has also recited to Joey.
2. Joey’s girlfriend Jannie has been renamed Gina, and is played here by Eliza Dushku. With Jannie only mentioned once in McAlary’s article, this is an expanded role for the character. With her acting chops, I think Dushku will be able to believably pull off the role of an addicted white-trash mother. There are reportedly some powerful scenes between De Niro and Dushku here early in the film- the two most likely gain from having worked together in “This Boy’s Life,” also directed by Caton-Jones.
3. Joey’s victim James Winston has been renamed Picasso (In an early script, Picasso is referred to as Bobbie Salem). Joey also is given a best friend named Billy, who is played by Anson Mount, previously in Britney Spears’ Crossroads.
4. A villain by the name of Spyder has been inserted into the story as well, played by William Forsythe. He is described as Picasso’s boss. Spyder is also after Joey, most likely added to the story to speed up the pace of the narrative to its conclusion.
5. Vincent has been given a girlfriend in the film by the name of Michelle. During this difficult time in real-life, he wasmarried to his second wife Susan Weinstein. Played by Frances McDormand, Michelle is a waitress.
6. The fact that Vincent is pursuing his son is revealed at about the midway point of the film. Up until that point, he is following evidence that leads in the direction of someone named “Joey Nova.” For those that have little knowledge of the film upon entering the the theater, this could be a huge surprise to them.
7. Also, it seems that Joey’s plight is magnified in that he has been also alleged to have killed a police officer, judging from the trailer. From various script reviews, it seems that the James Winston “Picasso” character remains as the initial victim, but the trailer centers on the murder of a police officer is also murdered during this time-which is attributed to be by the work of Joey. In the trailer, a cop is shown dead on the beach, as well as an additional snippet showing Joey maintaining his innocence to his father in a call from a phone booth. My own speculation at this point is that Spyder murders a cop in his search for Joey. This can give the film a cleaner ending-Joey is not a cop-killer.

“City by the Sea” is based on a story by the late Michael McAlary, a prize-winning reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News, who died from colon cancer about a year and a half after this story hit newsstands in the September 1997 issue of Esquire.

The Esquire.com site just put the article up online. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in seeing the film.

I’m interested in hearing from opening week viewers– Is the film an accurate description of what really happened in late 1996r And, to you, when is a story based on a true story actually nowhere near the real story and how should such a project be promotedr Drop me a line and tell me what you thought.

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