Religion & Liberty Online

Does The Godfather believe in America?

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece shines a light on how attempts to subvert American institutions in the name of a higher, personal justice can fail calamitously. In the end, human nature will not be subverted.

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This month the Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of the premiere of The Godfather, an important movie, a movie we at some point got in the habit of calling iconic, and we might remember it made stars of a number of actors, starting with Al Pacino. Francis Ford Coppola, who had already won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Patton (1970), became an important director and attempted to give Americans a cinema of tragic proportions, a new dignity to replace the old proprieties that his generation, the New Hollywood, had mocked and ruined.

A friend recently brought up this contemporary judgment by William F. Buckley Jr.: “It is positively embarrassing and far from surviving as the publicity promises as the Gone With the Wind of Gangster movies, my guess is that The Godfatherwill be as quickly forgotten as it deserves to be.” That’s the conclusion of a short, prissy review; the famous intellectual does not hesitate to confess ignorance—he has no idea why the characters act as they do, but he believes he knows all too well why the director made the movie the way he did: sensationalism, cheap cleverness. Moreover, Buckley claims Puzo’s novel is superior to the movie, no doubt out of loyalty, one novelist to another.

Today Buckley’s reasoning is as mystifying as Coppola’s moviemaking was then. I don’t think Buckley would have found intelligent explanations of the movie’s plot or the characters’ motivations incomprehensible, but he obviously wasn’t interested, didn’t want to exercise his famous wit to understand the movie at all—he wanted to humiliate anyone who would like it: it’s bad taste! Ultimately I think that’s because he finds Coppola’s view of America abhorrent. Citizenship doesn’t matter in The Godfather. Americanizing, assimilating, the experience of the immigrants moving from the Old World to the New and modernizing in the process—this story turns to tragedy instead of progress.

Another friend recently suggested it’s worth considering the Italians in Coppola’s movies (and perhaps those of Scorsese) in light of identity politics. So far as moviemaking goes, Italian Americans began to be necessary to play Italian characters, no doubt for the sake of authenticity. But at the same time, I may add, as least so far as Hollywood goes, Italians became the exemplary white Americans of that entire generation: I need only mention Rocky and Serpico! This identity also led to certain kinds of stories and to a certain taste that Buckley obviously rejected, not to say reviled. He would have preferred a cinema and an identity that turns Americans in the direction of the once-admired institutions that gave conservatism not merely its mission but also its dignity. To conserve that America would have been to conserve something great.

Coppola chose, finally, not only to adapt a rather trashy novel by Puzo but also to pursue a kind of storytelling that would look to criminals rather than to exemplary, admired, honored citizens. Worse still, among these criminals and their European ideas, he found the core of the political-theological problem, the rule of a man who has a divine sanction rather than the sanction announced by the Declaration of Independence: “Just powers derived from the consent of the governed.” Marlon Brando modeled Don Vito Corleone (lionhearted) on mafia mannerisms, which are caricatures or grotesques of aristocracy, since they are never far from ferocity. Buckley himself had certain aristocratic mannerisms, of course, but they tended in the exact opposite direction; he had a way about him that blue-collar Americans might describe as effete, for example. Coppola modeled The Godfather on something close to the divine right of kings: religion sanctions a man his people hold in awe, unable to think of themselves as his equals.

In The Godfather, therefore, Coppola raises the question, Will America stay America? Will it be the country you read about in the rhetoric of Lincoln? Or—was it ever that? What if the American people experience their political-theological drama in a very different way? This is not to say that Coppola suggested America might be in for a future where divine kings roam the fruited plains, only that the belief in the Constitution, individual rights, and impersonal justice might fade, or at any rate be weakened in significant ways. In that respect, Coppola has proved prophetic—Buckley had every reason to abhor the vision before his eyes. We look around ourselves these days and we’re not sure what we’re even trying to articulate when we talk about justice in America.

Coppola’s movie is great precisely because it raises all these questions, because it gives to American art, to an essentially middlebrow art fit for a middle-class nation, the dignity of raising the most important questions human beings must face—but in the process, he cannot help revealing that American justice is questionable. Tragedy, after all, cannot help presenting tragic heroes as admirable, attractive, and thus tempt us to imitate them so that we ourselves will be in turn admirable and attractive, or at least imagine ourselves so. The popularity of The Godfather thus offers a form of democratic choice that endangers the constitutional understanding of self-government in America.

The Godfather goes below the level of American decency, but also rises above the level of ordinary ambition—it offers protagonists who think themselves too big for America. They are not merely criminals, because they implicitly deny that the police do justice or that the laws are just. They are enemies of America, and they might not be as easily contained as we are wont to think. They can be destroyed violently, but in a sense they cannot be punished, because they reject the authority of America. This we may fairly call subversion, and if we learn to look at America with the care Coppola requires of his audience, we will see everywhere we find glamour also the claims of an aristocratic past that announces that the human heart is ruled by passions or desires too immoderate to sustain self-government, that our imagination nurtures expectations too exalted for us to tolerate the procedures of our justice and the claims that our rights come from nature.

Hence the very complicated story of Michael Corleone, who fulfills his father’s wish, to Americanize enough to be respected and feared in America, to be one of the powerful few rather than one of the many who are weak. In the process, Michael finds himself uniquely able to learn about the weaknesses of the America he’s subverting and thus to teach us about how we might have to change in order to defend ordered liberty from this corruption. The external threat of unassimilated immigrants thus becomes the internal threat of decadence. Michael suggests as much when he calls his WASP girlfriend naive.

The Godfather suggests that the family is the weakest part of the American way of life—there, American ideas of justice must always run against human nature. After all, there are families everywhere in the world, without any need of American institutions; more importantly, in America the love of one’s own family always threatens to corrupt supposedly impersonal institutions. The rise of important political families and a class of rich families would seem to prove Coppola right, mocking the claims of equal citizenship and furthering the notion that the future of America is various identity groups that go back to family, biology, and race.

Coppola’s moviemaking is so disturbing precisely because it asks us to look at what we most cherish as potentially dangerous. Michael Corleone’s success as a businessman suggests that it’s much less obvious than we think that commerce is to the common good or that capitalism is anything but a dangerous form of gambling that calls forth people who think they can fix the game. Given how angry so many of us are at our most famous corporations, Coppola would seem to be right in his warning, here as well.

This is not to say that Coppola wanted to offer a defense of Michael Corleone or the wickedness he stands for, the claim that necessity excuses anything. Michael ends up losing everything he loves; we learn he cannot escape the consequences of his willingness to murder. This may be enough to prove that our attraction to glamour, quick success, and unjust gains is doomed; but the failure of lawlessness is not enough to make America lovely and admirable again. The success of Coppola’s moviemaking has made us more interesting to study, because we worry a lot more about whether we’re good and whether we can hold on to the good things we cherish.

We are still living in Coppola’s America and as anguished about it as Buckley suggested. He touched greatness as an artist because he was patriotic, he wanted the best for America—indeed, his natural tendency to tragedy is a way of insisting that America is great and therefore contains great conflicts. We need stories about agony and justice to see that America is great and at the same time to feel duty-bound, even destined, to deal with the American drama rather than taking everything for granted or not caring. We do not really have stories about justice, only about ever uglier injustice; we do not have great talent like Coppola to tell us how to look at ourselves. Individualism, modernization, and a cynical rationalism—these traits seem to advance everywhere and, at our most pugnacious or partisan, we are ever more like Michael Corleone, angry at our failures, still trying to game the system, unwilling to accept defeat or to believe in justice, looking to take control of everything lest we lose it all.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.