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The continuing relevance of the Godfather Trilogy

Upon its 50th anniversary, much has been written about The Godfather and its sequels. Topics include its complicated and fascinating production history, the technical specs of the 4K remasters (which make the movies look and sound better than ever), and the first movie’s place in the pantheon of ’70s “Golden Age” cinema, something the new Paramount+ series The Offer reiterates often. But one of the qualities of a true classic is its continuing relevance.

Beyond being beautifully crafted artifacts of their time, do the Godfather movies have anything to say about American society and culture in the third decade of the 21st century? Have they, like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, retained their timelessness through ongoing thematic relevance or insights into human nature?

The Godfather (1972) and the American dream

Marlon Brando stars in The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Paramount Pictures / Paramount

The Godfather, about an Italian New York crime family trying to maintain its position amid changing times and heavy competition from rival families, is a chronicle of America. It is a story about assimilation and immigration, about who belongs and who is made to feel as if they don’t belong, about who has the right to a path to the American dream, and who will be denied that path —  or, at the very least, have that path made harder for them. It’s a movie about the nature of legitimacy, which the Corleone family and its patriarchs, Don Vito (Marlon Brando) and his son, Michael (Al Pacino), constantly strive for without ever quite attaining it. In this way, The Godfather reflects the same issues America struggles with today — who is allowed to feel as if they belong, who is excluded, who constitutes a “real” American.

The movie signals this with its first line of dialogue. “I believe in America. America has made my fortune,” says the first-generation Italian-American undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto). His prosperity is a huge deal for an Italian American in 1946, when the movie is set. When Italians immigrated to the U.S. in waves at the turn of the century, they were considered illegitimate, second-class citizens and worse. For the undertaker to have become a financial success in the short time between generations is a miracle for him. When he comes to Don Vito to ask him to punish the thugs who attacked his teenage daughter, his rage partially stems from being disrespected after feeling as though he had “made it” as an American. Of course, his success is partially due to the fact that his Italian American countrymen like Don Vito are willing to do violence on his behalf to achieve and maintain their share of the American dream.

The idea that American power and idealism had been corrupted by violence was widely accepted by 1972, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, especially in the light of public knowledge of the atrocities committed there by American military and political leaders. In this context, it make sense that the brutality in the movie is shrugged off as doing “business,” and why Coppola subtly equates America and violence throughout the film. For example, when the Corleone enforcers execute the driver, Paulie (John Martino), in the famous “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” scene, the Statue of Liberty is visible in the background. Later, when the eldest Corleone heir, Sonny (James Caan), is gunned down at a tollbooth, a baseball game is heard playing on a radio. In another scene, the Corleone “capo” Clemenza (Richard Castellano) casually equates Michael’s plans to do murder with with his war heroism abroad. “Now you need to be a hero for the family,” he says, as though it were the same thing.

Finally, late in the film, Coppola opens a scene of a meeting of the New York mafia’s “Five Families,” with a shot of an American flag hanging outside the boardroom where they meet. This signals the real transition between the generations, one that is explored in greater depth in The Godfather Part II. The days of hashing out deals in tiny restaurants and around the kitchen table are over. It’s all becoming global and even the human touch of crime — the intimacy of a garroting, for example —  is being rendered invisible. It’s all done by strings pulled in high places now.

The Godfather Part II (1974) and the rise and fall of empire

John Cazale and Al Pacino star in The Godfather Part II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Paramount Pictures

The Godfather is very provincial – mostly confined to the cozy Corleone estate behind its gates and walls, a few dimly lit locations around New York City, and the tiny town of Corleone in Italy, which has barely been touched by modernism, let alone globalization.

The Godfather Part II chronicles the spread of that province into an empire, and it means to parallel and comment on the spreading of the American Empire itself, especially during its global dominance after World War II (at one point, a character even compares the Corleones to the Roman Empire). This is seen both in the myriad locations that Michael travels to in the film – Nevada, New York, Washington, Miami, Cuba – as well as the way these locations create an expanded sense of the movie’s world. This applies to the scale of the filmmaking as well. Part II is a huge production compared to the original, with giant, intricately choreographed set pieces teeming with hundreds of extras.

Michael still believes in what his dad wanted for him – that the machinery of the business and all its corruption and violence can hum along, produce all the gains of the American dream, and never touch home and hearth. This is echoed early in the film when Michael tells a corrupt senator (G.D. Spradlin) who is trying to shake him down that “we are both a part of the same hypocrisy, but never think it applies to my family.”

Maybe as a war hero who fought in Europe, Michael still believes that the world’s worst violence can’t really touch America shores, despite what he has both seen and done. But by the movie’s end, he begins to realizes that his father’s dream might be unreachable. The principal mood of Michael’s story in Part II is profound disillusionment. The dream that Vito wanted is not just unobtainable for the Corleones — it doesn’t exist at all. Like America writ large, Michael’s error is in his reach, not just that it exceeds his grasp, but that anyone should think that a family’s happiness depends upon not only having immense wealth and power, but also being able to secure that wealth for generations. As most people living in America not named Musk, Gates, Zuckerberg, or Bezos know, any such belief is pure fantasy, despite what we’ve all been told since childhood about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Most of us are destined to struggle in our evermore economically stratified existence, so why not learn to be happy with less? Don Vito seems to grasp this by end of the first movie, drinking his wine in the sunlit garden and playing with his grandchild, his worries about the world all but forgotten.

Part of the reason that Michael can’t accept less is that he is so driven by a sense of anger and injustice – the fact that he and his kind are being denied what is rightfully theirs. Michael is a war hero and he still gets beaten up by a cop (Sterling Hayden). Despite the status, wealth, and “respect” the Corleones have earned (mostly, though not entirely, through violence and intimidation), they are still second-class citizens in the minds of Anglo-America, and they are made to feel as such. Who, then, is to blame?

Diane Keaton and Al Pacino star in The Godfather Part III, directed by Francis Coppola.
Paramount Pictures.

The Godfather Part III (1990) and globalization

The third chapter of Coppola’s and Puzo’s saga (now also known as The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone) takes a shot at answering this question, and the answer is, well, duh, corporate globalization. Part II begins to hint at this when Michael goes to Cuba and breaks bread with the Cuban president and the heads of “legitimate” international industries. Nobody at the table bats an eye at the fact that a criminal of Michael’s status and notoriety sits among them as they plan to do business. The movie implies that these corporate honchos are all criminals of one kind of another: Labor exploiters, war profiteers, colonial leeches. No wonder Fidel Castro sways the Cuban people with his communist propaganda about giving the wealth back to the people. It’s not an accident that the movie sets Michael and his brother Fredo’s (John Cazale’s) visit on the eve of Castro’s coup in the late 1950s.

These global realities were becoming more evident in the 1970s when the first two movies were being made (ironically underscoring the point, Paramount Pictures was acquired by the international conglomerate Gulf + Western in 1966). Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) would also dip into these themes a few years later, with its famous monologue by a corporate executive (Ned Beatty) proclaiming the end of the nation-state.

This is emphasized by the unsubtle but effective opening image of Coppola’s restored version of The Godfather Part III: A low-angle shot of a glass and steel skyscraper towering over a Catholic Church in New York City. We quickly learn that the Church itself owns a global real estate corporation worth $6 billion, making it “the largest landlord on earth.” Michael and an Archbishop (Donal Donnelly) sit together in a room, dwarfed by enormous maps of the world, hashing out the details of a deal that will affect millions. In his never-ending quest to make the family business “legitimate,” Michael wants to create an international conglomerate owed by the Corleone family; the Church, meanwhile, is desperate to get its hands on some of the Corleone’s gambling fortune. “In today’s world, the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” says the archbishop.

If the characters and warring sides in The Godfather are driven by tribalism, then by Part III, set on the doorstep of the 1980s, mafia tribes were all but extinct. Michael makes this point often as he tries to make the men with guns understand that guns are quaint tools compared to the power wielded by global corporations, who don’t suffer the regulation – or the taxes – of government control. Gangster lingo – “hit,” “capo,” “Consigliere,” “button men,” “sleep with the fishes,” etc. – has been entirely replaced by the language of international business and capitalism. Now it’s all markets and shareholders, boards and consortiums, as Michael travels by private helicopter from rooftop to rooftop.

Michael’s dream of legitimacy is finally achieved. He is blessed by every institution that matters: Government, business, church. The irony of course, is that even the legitimate stuff isn’t legitimate. It’s just given the veneer of legitimacy by rich and powerful men. And of course, Michael’s old criminal partners want to use the Corleone’s “legitimate” corporation for money laundering, leading to this famous lament: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” It’s never really over. “The Death of Michael Corleone” in Coppola’s new title isn’t just his physical death, or even the death of his soul, it’s the death of old-style criminal institutions. The bad people, however, still remain.

Looking at the pristine new prints of the movies, especially on a big screen with good sound, makes Coppola’s and Puzo’s original intentions very clear for this material, and shows that these movies are still as relevant as ever in describing the American experience. Not only where we’ve been, but where we are today, and likely where we are going if we don’t face up to some real change in terms of recognizing who and what our true enemies are.

You can stream the 4K remasters of The Godfather Trilogy on Paramount+ or purchase the Blu-ray editions.

Michael Green
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