Is Snitch Based on a True Story?

Directed by visionary director Ric Roman Waugh, ‘Snitch’ is an action thriller film that revolves around John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), who has to go undercover as a drug informant to reduce the prison sentence of his estranged son, who was wrongfully captured by the authorities. John also uses one of his employees, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), as his gateway into the clandestine world of drug trafficking. The film explores the effects of the statutory minimal sentence regulations for drug crimes on offenders and how it affects their loved ones. With a harsh and authentic style, the 2013 film captures the tense and dangerous nature of the drug trade.

Although the film is packed with high-octane action sequences, it is not your standard action flick. Rather, it emphasizes how the characters grow and change in response to moral challenges. Susan Sarandon co-stars with Johnson as a formidable Attorney named Joanne Keeghan. Sarandon applies her enormous acting chops to the part, bringing to life a woman with a personal motive. Barry Pepper also gives a stellar performance as Agent Cooper, a covert DEA agent who works alongside John Matthews. If the movie’s dark and gritty tone makes you wonder whether ‘Snitch’ is rooted in reality, let us lay down the facts.

Is Snitch a True Story?

‘Snitch’ is partially based on a true story. It is loosely inspired by a case covered on the eponymous episode on PBS’ investigative documentary titled ‘Frontline.’ The episode covers the story of James Settembrino, whose 18-year-old son, Joey Settembrino, was sentenced to 10 years in prison as per Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for his involvement in a drug trafficking operation in 1992. However, Joey, who was a first-time offender, maintained that he was set up in the operation and had no idea of the full extent of the illegal activities. James Settembrino, deeply concerned about his son’s lengthy sentence, decided to take extraordinary measures to help him and became a DEA Informant. 

Settembrino’s work as an informant ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of several individuals involved in drug trafficking. In return for his cooperation, his son’s sentence was reduced to five years, and he was released from prison after serving a portion of that time. ‘Snitch’ follows a similar premise where (Dwayne Johnson), a successful man running his own construction company, has to go undercover to reduce his son’s jail time.

When asked about the story and theme of the movie in an interview, Roman Waugh stated that his goal has always been to create films that are realistic and genuine. Waugh loves putting his audience in a high-stake situation, and for that reason, he also went undercover as a California parole officer. He wanted to convince everyone that he was a rookie officer rather than a filmmaker so that they would take him seriously and share with him the horror stories of life behind bars.

Waugh continued, “I would go to the institutions, I’d meet with high-level gangsters and never used anybody’s name or likeness; it was about just understanding that world. But I always loved the first-person point of view of that story, that we always wonder what happens when we go to prison. So then when I heard about Snitch and when I heard about the truth, it became instantly that thing that I had to tell, which is the second age-old question of ‘if our kids were in harm’s way, we would move heaven and earth to get them out of, to get them safe.’ And that’s what Snitch is about.”

The filmmaker further added, “The fact that a father whose 18-year-old son was wrongly accused of dealing drugs and got caught under these mandatory minimum laws, the fact that a real father went into this drug world and got a U.S. attorney to sign off on this.” When Waugh was questioned about his casting choices, he revealed that he wanted his film to be realistic and grounded. He proposed bringing in someone as formidable as Johnson to show that in the real world, physical stature doesn’t guarantee safety. In real-world scenarios, the consequences are the same regardless of height; a bullet to the head is lethal.

Waugh continued, “But when we started talking about the usual suspects you’d put in a movie like this, they were all like boring choices to me because I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve seen that. Then I started thinking about it, and Dwayne Johnson and I had been wanting to work together, and this lightning rod idea came up, and I said, “If we’re going to show you how dangerous this world is, why don’t we take the most formidable guy on the planet, and walk him into this movie and show you when it’s real-world rules, it won’t matter if you’re 6 foot 5 or 5 foot 6, because when a bullet hits you in the head, you die just the same.”

For Dwayne Johnson, the actor walking in the shoes of John Matthews, ‘Snitch’ was an opportunity to shed his muscleman image and try on a more vulnerable persona. In this particular role, the vulnerability was an immediate requirement. As an actor, he had to open himself up emotionally and place a great deal of trust in Waugh’s guidance. Johnson also found gratification in portraying a character who didn’t fit the conventional mold of a hero and who didn’t automatically spring into action to save the day when faced with dangers. Dwayne also revealed in an interview that even though the movie was made on a modest budget, he decided to take the challenge because he loved the story.

In the movie, we see John instinctively ducking and searching for an escape when bullets start flying instead of seizing the enemy’s weapon or swiftly clearing a room filled with hostile assassins. Dwayne continued, “Playing big, heroic characters with heart is always a lot of fun. I enjoy making movies like that, and a lot of people love to live vicariously through those characters. In a role like this, vulnerability comes into play immediately. As an actor, you open yourself up emotionally and put a lot of trust in the hands of your director. I jumped at that opportunity.”

The actor added, “I also enjoyed playing someone who wasn’t necessarily considered “your hero” and, in the face of adversity, doesn’t immediately stand up and save the day.” All in all, ‘Snitch’ is not entirely but loosely based on James Settembrino’s story. Although there are parallels between Settembrino’s narrative and the plot of ‘Snitch,’ it is true that the film takes considerable creative liberties and does not provide an exact replica of his life and time as an informant. For dramatic effect, the film introduces made-up characters and situations into the real-life story. 

Read More: Best Action Thriller Movies of All Time