Godfather (the movie) is a tragedy masquerading as a story of triumph.
Godfather (the book) is kind of a mess. Compared to the movie, the novel seems to go out of its way to spend way too much time focusing on all the wrong things. Godfather is one of those stories that, despite being so narratively dense, simply works better as a film than as a novel. The movie, which turns half-a-century old this year, is one of the finest examples of a film from the auteur era of Hollywood. Despite the source material coming from a novelist and not the film’s director, it simply cannot be denied how much personal history and love director Francis Ford Coppola poured into the production of the movie.
Perhaps my favorite “little moment” in the film, which also illustrates the “Coppola Touch,” happens about an hour into the movie, when the film just stops dead in its tracks so Paulie can explain to Michael the proper way to make Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs. It’s nothing more than a little slice of (Italian-American) life that Coppola wanted to film and it’s a scene that a more domineering studio/producer might have ordered cut. Instead, it remained in the movie and was one of a dozen similar moments that illustrated just how in love with the world of the story the director was. Coppola might have loved the world around the plot more than the plot itself. He certainly spends a tremendous amount of time letting scenes breathe, letting moments hang, and letting countless Italian-American idiosyncrasies be demonstrated but rarely explained. The result is a movie that, despite how outlandish the twists and turns of it all could get, never feels anything less than grounded and authentic.
Or maybe it’s not outlandish at all. In one of the movie’s more quotable exchanges (which is saying something considering how rich the movie is with quotable lines), Michael tries to explain to Kay that his father is “no different than powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.” To that Kay responds: “Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.” That prompts Michael’s conversation-ending response: “Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?”
The plot has more political intrigue, backstabbing, murder, and machinations in one three-hour presentation than an entire season of Game of Thrones. Having seen it more times than I can count, I can say there’s never been a time when I was not riveted by the performances, dazzled by the direction, and engrossed in the twists and turns of the tale. And yet, for all the praise it regularly gets, and rightly so, it should never be forgotten what is truly at the core of this movie.
The Godfather is a tragedy masquerading as a story of triumph.
The plot of the movie ends with Michael “ascending” to his father’s position as head of the family, but the story leading up to that “triumphant” moment is really about the fall of Michael’s humanity, which he both had ripped away at times and, at other times, which he voluntarily shed little by little, in order to achieve that lofty position.
There are three moments in the film that define this story of Michael’s tragic fall.
The first comes exactly halfway through the movie when Michael kills Sollozzo and McClusky. This moment essentially marks the end of Michael as a civilian outsider to the family, a position he held by his father’s design, hoping to keep him out of the family business so he could become “Senator Corleone” or “Governor Corleone.” Instead, in the aftermath of Don Vito’s attempted Murder, Mikey has to step into unfamiliar territory and, in the words of Sonny, “get blood all over [his] nice Ivy League suit.”
The second critical scene comes a little over thirty minutes later. In the aftermath of the double shooting, Michael is forced to flee to his father’s homeland of Cicily. There he meets and falls in love with a local girl, Apollonia. They soon marry but their love is cut short by a car bomb that kills her despite being intended for Michael. The death of his first wife will continue to haunt Michael throughout his life, but the immediate result is Michael realizing he is not safe in Cicily and must return to New York. He does so a changed man, not only someone with blood on his hands from his double-murder but now with innocent blood as well, from the wife who died as a consequence of loving him.
The third critical scene comes a little over half an hour later, when Michael and Kay (now married) are overseeing the baptism of their newborn into the Catholic faith. During this ceremony, in which Michael renounces the devil and all his works of evil, a coordinated hit is being carried out against all the heads of the rival mob families in New York. When the dust settles, not only is Michael the head of the Corleone family, but he has become the most powerful mobster in all of New York. He took actions against his peers that his father would never have dreamed of.
In fact, in what I think is a pivotal scene showing the difference between father and son, when Don Vito learns of Sonny’s murder, he immediately calls for a truce, demanding of his family that no acts of vengeance be undertaken. Michael, on the other hand, becomes a ruthless and tactical killer, ensuring his supremacy as the head of his crime empire.
The final scene of the movie hammers home the point of the journey we’ve been on for three hours. Michael is now in his father’s office—his office—and Kay, his new bride, watches from the outside, no longer permitted to speak to him about his work (after they were so candid in discussing it at the beginning of the movie). As she looks into the room (on the outside looking in), at the sight of men kissing the literal ring of their new Don, the door closes and she is left isolated from a man who has gained the world…
and lost his soul to do it.
Godfather is a tragedy masquerading as a triumph.