- The film Snitch was inspired by the true experiences of DEA agent James Settembrino, but changed many events for a more exciting story.
- James Settembrino’s son Joey was actually framed by a friend and was never released from prison in real life.
- The real story wasn’t about drug lords or gangs, and James Settembrino didn’t take witness protection or have an accomplice like the character Daniel in the film.
The Rock’s 2013 film Spy was inspired by a true story, but the two stories are far from similar as the film changes some events from what really happened. Dwayne Johnson plays John Matthews, a father desperate to keep his son Jason out of prison. Under threat of a minimum sentence of ten years, John meets a lawyer who agrees to reduce Jason’s sentence in return for tipping off a drug dealer. This leads to an action-packed journey that sheds light on the world of drug trafficking and criminal morals and ethics. Spy rated 57% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of release and was added to Netflix in September 2023, attracting a whole new wave of viewers.
The concept for the film came about after the broadcast of an episode of PBS’ Frontline The focus was on a discussion of how federal drug policy encouraged inmates to be informants. This episode featured James Settembrino, who became a DEA informant to help his son Joey get a reduced sentence for trafficking in illegal substances. The episode aired in the US in 1999 and served as inspiration for informer, The two stories played out in very different ways.
Snitch is inspired by the true experiences of DEA agent James Settembrino
In 1992, the government turned to James Settembrino and made a deal with the DEA to get a $5,000 reduction in Joey’s sentence. In the documentary, James explained that the system was more concerned with processing convictions than actually incarcerating the higher-level dealers, and that there was a vicious cycle of fraud between the lower-level dealers in exchange for reduced sentences. James agreed to the deal and worked with the DEA to catch a drug dealer. However, unlike the film, it wasn’t an exciting journey, but rather an exciting battle between what is right and what is legal.
James Settembrino’s son Joey was actually framed
Joey Settembrino was conned by a friend who owed him money and asked to organize a drug buy to con him. Joey had never sold drugs before and was initially surprised by the friend’s request. Joey then organized the sale of over $1,000 worth of LSD to his friend, and after the money was handed over to him, he was arrested by authorities. Joey stated that he had previously been close to the friend, having known her for many years and spending a lot of time together fishing and skiing. Therefore, he was shocked by his friend’s actions. The friend who set up Joey’s arrest served no prison time and was often seen by James in their hometown, where he sometimes took and sold drugs.
Joey Settembrino wasn’t released from prison in real life
The real story didn’t end with James managing to get Joey out of prison, unlike the much happier ending Spy. In real life, Joey accepted a guilty plea offered to him by the government, which earned him a prison sentence of at least ten years. The interview with Frontline took place in 1999, seven years after Joey’s prison sentence. In his interview, Joey talked about his conviction at 18 and how difficult it was to make friends in prison.
Although he was betrayed by his friend, which led to his arrest, Joey said so Frontline that he didn’t “…want to serve 10 years in prison, but [I] I also didn’t want to give up on one of my friends. There is little information about what happened to Joey Settembrino after his release from prison, but based on the plea agreement he made, he should have been released sometime between 2003 and 2004.
James Settembrino actually failed to sell drugs
In the same report, James Settembrino spoke about his time spent identifying dealers by meeting people with drug problems. He made contact on many occasions but found that no dealers wanted to sell to him because he didn’t fit the profile. There were several failures before a former informant was met in New York who had found himself in a similar situation. Arrangements were then made for someone from outside the country to come and sell it to James, with the understanding that that person knew they would be arrested, given bail and then fled the country.
However, less than an hour before the hearing, the deal fell through due to problems with the submitted motions. In a dramatic conversation, James Settembrino was told that business was already underway and that his forced paperwork had caused problems in the process. This was the last job he held with the DEA and he expressed anger that the government had allowed him to put himself in such a situation.
In the real story there were no drug lords or drug gangs
One of the most prominent scenes in Spy is in the film’s final climax when the cartel boss realizes John is an informant, leading them to an explosive highway chase and shootout. This scene features a beautiful piece of cinematography, and The Rock is seen from above after the shootout, injured but alive. Unfortunately this is the end of Spy is very different from the actual event, which was more of a fizz than a bang. In fact, James Settembrino’s only experience with a successful drug buy was a staged act that did not involve violence or weapons. There were certainly no drug cartels or shootings.
James Settembrino and his family did not take advantage of witness protection
The penultimate scenes of Spy Show John Matthews watching the DA’s press conference from the sidelines, on crutches, still battered and bruised from the shooting. He leaves the reward money for Daniel and is there for Jason’s release from prison before the family leaves the witness protection program. In real life, neither James Settembrino nor his family went into witness protection. Unlike his fictional counterpart, James didn’t hurt or kill anyone and his interactions with other criminals were fairly uneventful.
Snitch’s character Daniel does not exist in real life
In SpyJohn Matthews enlists the help of one of his employees, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal in one of his best films). Daniel has already been convicted of distribution twice and is now in his third run-in with the law. John Matthews offers Daniel $20,000 in exchange for introducing him to a drug dealer, and Daniel introduces him to Malik. Although Daniel was initially unaware that John was an informant, he works with John throughout the film, helping to hide both of their families and fighting alongside him in the final shootout.
In real life, the character Daniel did not exist. The only accomplice James Settembrino had who resembled Daniel was the former New York contact who helped prepare the planned arrest. Additionally, James only had regular contact with drug users because he found it difficult to gain the trust of drug dealers. While the true story of James Settembrino was interesting in its own right, Spy made the right decision to raise the stakes and make the story more exciting for a Hollywood film.
https://screenrant.com/snitch-movie-true-story-james-settembrino-changes/ What really happened and what the movie “The Rock” changes