Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? One of the greatest movies of all time.
What did I get? Has The Godfather finally supplanted Citizen Kane as the movie that all the film buffs agree is the greatest of all time? Or is it still #2? Our age is less monolithic than the period that produced the consensus around Citizen Kane, which makes The Godfather’s preeminence all the more impressive. In this blog I’ve shown resistance towards popular favorites before, and it might reasonably be surmised that I’m not down with the Godfather hype. Quite the contrary: I think it’s just as great as everyone else does. If anything, it’s underrated. It’s just that good.
It may not be possible to write anything original about The Godfather at this point, but one thing I can do is write about my own perspective on it. (This is obvious, and stupid, and yet necessary to say.) I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a dissenter on The Godfather, but it’s worth unpacking certain resistances on my part that the movie manages, gloriously, to overcome. This has to do with the romanticism of the gangster genre, or specifically Mafia films, including The Sopranos. The Godfather executes an end run around the cynicism and naivete of the viewer, taking those reactions and using them as a way of achieving a deeper complexity, and (somewhat like the Corleones) it’s not beneath deception and underhanded techniques to get what it wants. The Corleones are malevolent, though; The Godfather, benign.
Let’s start with this: I don’t really like Mafia movies, I think they grossly overstate the role that organized crime plays in American life. But it turns out that this is a very difficult perspective to express without coming off as a chump. As we’ll see, it’s precisely this dynamic that so strongly contributes to The Godfather’s greatness.
The Godfather has the audacity to posit the Mafia as a metaphor for American capitalism, indeed the American Dream — any dissenters to this idea (like me) are, however, obliged to concede that the Mafia is mostly a shadowy subject about which it is difficult to know much. That concession feeds the notion that the people behind The Godfather are extremely worldly people who “know” a great deal about important, shadowy matters, which in turn reinforces the romanticism of the whole subject. Precisely because the Mafia is shadowy, it’s so much easier to idealize it — a lot easier to idealize than the U.S. Congress, anyway. (Me, I prefer Congress.) Those of you who know the movie well will already have noticed that I’m taking on the attractive and naive contours of Kay Adams.
So let’s get to that. Pivotal bit of dialogue:
Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
What are the facts? How significant is the Mafia, really? Do powerful public servants murder their political rivals as a matter of routine? Did Lyndon Johnson really arrange the assassination of JFK? Was 9/11 an inside job? Is there a scurrilous premise of political life so shocking that it can’t be defended? You can have your “reasonable” opinion about such things, but in the run of ordinary life it’s impossible to KNOW. It’s rhetorically very difficult for Kay to counter Michael — any depiction of a more or less stable and straightforward America in which politicians are seldom murderers merely sets her up as a dupe, and who wants to have that conversation? Game, set, and match to Michael —— almost.
One can begin to see the profundity of The Godfather’s accomplishment when one considers that the movie traffics in exactly this kind of dissenting cynicism, a cynicism that would instantly, almost thoughtlessly, embrace the postulate that of course a senator is more of a criminal than a mafia don, but then puts that defense in the mouth of the most seductive, the most cunning, and (ultimately) the least reliable character in the movie. Michael says those things because it gives him the space to pursue his aims, defend his family, whatever. (It also lets him off the hook, and that too is very American.) And he might well believe them too, it’s not just a dodge. Thus begins The Godfather’s rabbit hole, in which every reaction is either too cynical or not cynical enough. The movie became a success because of that cynicism, a pose the movie simultaneously affirms and denies, and in doing so it expresses the profound problem of the American Dream that was beginning to become apparent around 1972, the unwillingness to buy what the official authorities were selling, especially with respect to the protracted police action in Vietnam. (The Godfather is ultimately about Vietnam; yes, it is.)
Let’s run at this from another angle: Sicilianness and “the family,” which are really the same thing. In The Godfather, Sicilianness is romanticized out of all proportion, and yet Coppola and company are savvy enough to push against that romanticism too. “Sicilianness” in The Godfather means a wholesale conflation of business and family concerns — it’s in the very title, after all — and it serves to put the audience on the defensive. When Tom Hagen tells studio executive Jack Woltz that the godfather/godson relationship is a sacred bond to Sicilians, who among us does not feel a pang of longing for that degree of intense familial closeness? Who does not, obscurely, feel at some disadvantage? But watch the movie! The Godfather is designed to explode such notions utterly: the Corleones are a deeply corrupt and ruthless and violent clan, quite happy to use “family” as a convenient justification for their rapacious ways. They are not to be admired — or at best, ambivalently so.
Michael: Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.
Oh, the ambiguity! On the one hand, Michael is absolutely right, the tension in the scene emerges from how palpably wrong it feels for Fredo to be bickering with Michael while clapping Moe Green on the back. Michael’s right, it’s foolish, foolish behavior. But Michael’s response there uses “family” as a cover for sheer self-interest — or, if you will, self-preservation; is there a difference? When “family” becomes a cover to act against the family, then what does “family” mean? This “love” that Michael speaks of — what can that possibly mean? And again we’re forced to ponder the parallels to the failure of the American Dream, and again Vietnam.
I had a bunch of other things I wanted to say about The Godfather, but they’re all pretty routine and superficial, about Brando ushering in a new age of realism and Michael as Henry IV and on and on. But it’s all been said before, and better, and I don’t really know anything about acting or Shakespeare anyway.
For me the important thing to get in print is something I don’t think I’ve read before, a full recognition of the complexity of The Godfather in terms of rhetoric. What makes The Godfather the greatest American movie ever made, if such it is, is that it is able to manipulate the viewer’s need to know things, to be a knowing person, in order to ensure a worldly success for itself (11 weeks at #1), and then it shows you why that perspective is both unimpeachable and booby-trapped — and, in the unpacking of that perspective, it questions the underlying project of America, demonstrates the complex feelings we all have for America; we adhere to its ideals while accepting as a matter of course that we’re all debased. And it does all of this with a graceful, stirring, ever-proportionate, expansive story with a hundred different characters who never feel very far from real. Part of the essence of filmmaking is to imply “more” — to convince the audience that the character who just went offscreen did in fact go off to bring back a pizza. No movie ever implied “more” as penetratingly as The Godfather.
What here smacks of 1972? What I’ve been calling the “cynical” — really, worldly — perspective the movie presented/responded to/encouraged/debunked is very much of the time. Indeed, instead of saying it smacks of 1972, one might equally well say that The Godfather was the most prominent piece of evidence that America had entered full intellectual and cultural maturity of a kind. (And here you thought I was going to single out Fredo’s anachronistic sportcoat in Las Vegas.)
IMDB score: 9.2
My score: 10
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Al Lettieri, Gianni Russo, Lenny Montana, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Alex Rocco, Morgana King, Corrado Gaipa, Johnny Martino, Victor Rendina, Simonetta Stefanelli, Louis Guss, Tom Rosqui, Joe Spinell, Richard Bright, Julie Gregg, Sofia Coppola
IMDB synopsis: The story begins as “Don” Vito Corleone, the head of a New York Mafia “family”, oversees his daughter’s wedding. His beloved son Michael has just come home from the war, but does not intend to become part of his father’s business. Through Michael’s life the nature of the family business becomes clear. The business of the family is just like the head of the family, kind and benevolent to those who give respect, but given to ruthless violence whenever anything stands against the good of the family. Don Vito lives his life in the way of the old country, but times are changing and some don’t want to follow the old ways and look out for community and “family”. An up and coming rival of the Corleone family wants to start selling drugs in New York, and needs the Don’s influence to further his plan. The clash of the Don’s fading old world values and the new ways will demand a terrible price…