The Godfather and The American Dream
~ my review-essay on The Godfather, Part I (1972) and II (1974). Recently rewatched both at the Alamo Drafthouse, re-released upon the 50th anniversary.
“I believe in America” are the first words spoken in The Godfather, by a man who has come to request a vengeance for his daughter’s sake. It’s something that the state cannot provide to him. The “Godfather” is asked for this favor on the day of his own daughter’s wedding. By tradition, he cannot refuse.
Vito Corleone (Brando) rules over a criminal empire with panache. Intelligent and reasonable, but not without an instinct for violence when necessitated by business or disrespect — he’s the Godfather for good reason. He understands his community, from the little people to the sharks and killers and politicians; Vito wields his underworldly power with a steady hand.
Michael Corleone (Pacino), Vito’s youngest son, returns from World War II a hero. He intimately understands the family business and the responsibility his father wields, and yet wants nothing to do with it. Though he loves and respects his father, he tells his girl Kay — “That’s my family, it’s not me.”
It’s 1945, the war is won and America is ready to BOOM.
“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The Godfather films are masterpieces in every respect: story, performances, cinematography. Brando and Pacino and De Niro are so good, what can you even say? They’re so good it’s like they are living and not *acting.* The whole cast really (Caan, Keaton, Duvall, Cazale, the list goes on…) The pacing and score are immaculate. Every conversation looks like a painting and sounds like passages from some kind of Italian-American Gospel.
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
And even beyond all that, The Godfather uses a fictional story to tell a real history — that of the intrinsic position of organized crime within 20th century American society. The mafia provides an invaluable service in New York City and throughout the country: a syndication of coercion upon individuals, institutions, ideals. They give favors, bloody and divine, to regular folk beyond recourse, who’ve been spurned or ignored by more official channels. They successfully threaten movie producers and senators into supporting their ventures, and return favors to small business owners while collecting their protection money like clockwork.
Italian-American crime families run the early 20th’s streets and are as much a part of American culture as apple pie and baseball — or jazz. Which raises up the reality of another truth inherent to The Godfather saga: The United States of America is — and always has been — a nation of immigrants.
“Do me this favor. I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me. They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor.”
We see long scenes from Vito’s boat arrival on Ellis Island, 1901, and the ancient songs of Italy at Connie’s wedding in 1945. Sicilian traditions and turns of phrase recur throughout. The “Five Families” pass on power through the generations, including Vito to Michael. It’s a family business all the way down because it’s operating beyond the law, and thus demands absolute trust.
Vito is respected in the community for his reason and passion, and for his skill in certain discretionary services; he does his best to pass on such traits to his children. He must eventually choose an heir apparent from among his boys, like a king. Santino “Sonny” is a hothead that resorts too quickly to thoughtless violence and Fredo is a weakling, a hedonist that cannot support himself, let alone the family business. Michael is the chosen son. And it’s only when the family patriarch is threatened and nearly killed that Michael at last takes on the role he was destined for.
In the past, we see a young Vito go from plotting and executing an assassination to holding his son and whispering his undying love for him in a span of a few minutes. // In the present, Michael’s rise to Godfather is borne of bold action, and his place as mafioso ruler of NYC after his father’s death is secured through ruthless retribution, a reaping of the opposition to start anew unchallenged.
After a tragic childhood in Italy and self-made rank as community action-man in America, Vito returns overseas to take vengeance upon his family’s killer back in his hometown of Corleone. // Now an experienced Godfather and impenetrable expert killer, Michael interweaves plots between Roth and Frankie and Senator Geary and Fredo until you cannot be sure of his motives, let alone his next move.
“I make him an offer he don’ refuse. Don’ worry.” // “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies.”
The complex evolution of the Godfather role between Vito and Michael is the core brilliance of this story. Wrought of time and modernity and a distinct separation in upbringing — these two men rule their own way.
Sicilian immigrant Vito, learning English as he goes, helps build New York, laboring for shopkeepers and landlords and soon protecting and collecting amongst them. Former Marine Michael, intelligent and tranquil, returns to a family that never fully understood him. But he’s disciplined and ready to fight to protect his father and all their various interests in the city’s massive economy.
“You talk about vengeance. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you? Or my boy to me?”
In some ways, Vito is like a wayward messiah. He’s a man of the people, past or present. In his advanced age, he consistently votes away further bloodshed. We learn he only draws blood when necessary. His attempted murder by rival families is borne of trying to do the *right* thing — a refusal to wade into the narcotics trade for fear of its negative effects upon the community (and from his guess at a lack of police protection for it). Vito wants to do right by his family and by his community, and by every duly respectful counterpart coming to him as friend or colleague.
“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
Michael learns every lesson from his father’s words and actions, but goes much further with violence. He kills to instantly clear distant threats and is more than willing to take out former friends and exiled brothers. The expediencies of a new environment, with less trust and more money, alter Michael’s possible plays. Though it seems likely that Michael’s penchant for widespread and extraordinary violence is a strategy absorbed from his service in World War II. In the family business or on the eastern front, it’s a winning strategy. Materially-speaking. Spiritually, however, the bloody means for greedy ends corrode the soul. And we see that play out over the remainder of Michael’s harrowing life.
“She’s very beautiful. To you, she’s beautiful. For me, there’s only my wife and son.”
The Godfather is about the American dream because it’s truly about a self-made man. Vito is a man from nothing who lives his life with pride and honor and effectiveness. Vito is an enterprising immigrant orphan who put his nose to the grindstone to truly deal in the people of his community, who built a multi-generational empire of power and wealth in New York City. Vito is a criminal, but he’s also a man who earned his place in the jewel of America.
The criminal element thrive in 20th century America, evolving from Vito’s time to Michael’s. Why? Because of the accelerations of industrialization, because of a booming war economy and continuous expansion west and even imperially, internationally. Lines of communication and production can be greased, and must be, my middlemen between state and enterprise. Hyman Roth speaks with jubilation about his empire’s marriage with the Cuban government and the ample opportunities it provides. In early America, most everyone is a striving entrepreneur and needs favors. The police need help busting unions and making rogue citizens comply, or disappear.
Organized crime offers answers to such needs.
Operating in the beginning of this process, Vito uses love instead of strictly fear to win the hearts and minds of the community, enough to build his family’s ‘enterprise’ from the ground floor. Meanwhile, 30 years on, Michael continues his evolution as the next gen Don at a midway point, waging a shadow war to protect his interests with a veteran’s stone-cold gaze, his soul already sold in so many ways, Death an intimate acquaintance within his rulership, for better or worse.
“My father taught me many things here — he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
I think Vito’s integrity is inherited by Michael, but simply cannot survive the accelerations of modernity or the growing pathologies of power in a hasty and lawless world, where any day among colleagues could bring about an order for your death for the sake of the bottom line. Michael is also a different person, who lived a different life, with Vito as his father. Michael experiences love and death with less than equal force. As a result, he wins the gang war but loses his family.
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Ultimately, The Godfather is about family, duty, tradition. All those cliches that are cliches for a reason. *Family* houses complex hierarchies and relationships. Human beings do things, bloody and beyond good and evil, for the sake of them. In this world, family will inevitably break our heart, in what they do to us or in what we have to do for them. Vito and Michael are duplicitous killers, but they love their families. They may lose them, their souls, but not for want of trying to secure them a future. They are the gods of the underworld, and they are the heroes of America: Underclassers that made it over, nobodies that became somebodies — by any means necessary.
I mark The Godfather Part II (1974) as my favorite, though the whole trilogy is a masterpiece. As close to perfection as movies can get. Transcendent performances from Brando and Pacino and De Niro are among the best ever put to the screen. Vito and Michael’s stories are so well-woven together, fading into each other like wayward rhymes in a song. Every scene of these films stays precise and realized, as though it is being stripped from the Real of another universe.
Perhaps there are no better films to understand the American dream and human soul. ~