Generally considered one of the greatest American films, Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic really is a magnificent effort, stellar in almost every part. Even the ad libs (“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”) are just priceless.
I suppose everyone loves movies for different reasons, and takes home different things from them. I see “Godfather” as a fairly classic tragedy: the downfall of a great man, generally due to a character flaw. And “Godfather” has this in spades.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), is the youngest, war hero “good” son of a major Mafia don, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). The plan was to keep Michael out of the “family business” and on the path to legitimate power (“senator Corleone…governor Corleone…”) but when his family is threatened, he is pulled into the world of criminal violence, which eventually corrupts him and leads to his downfall…
Well, that is the narrative I heard most often.
“Breaking Bad” exists in the top tier of television serial drama, just an amazing piece of story telling. And in it, we follow the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, who, due to medical bills, is forced into the path of crime, slowly corrupted more and more, until the criminal world infects everything in his life, leading to his downfall…
Or so I heard.
But there is good reason to question both narratives. In “Breaking Bad” the fan base was so loyal to White that the filmmakers finally had to have him specifically and explicitly state that he did the things he did because he liked the power. In other words, the series wasn’t about circumstances corrupting a man as much as a man who was evil having the misfortune of stumbling into a set of circumstances where that evil was given expression.
And if, over the course of three movies we see the rise and fall of the Corleone family, from Vito’s flight from Sicily (Godfather 2) to his efforts to protect his family in the new world, playing by the only rules he knew, to (in Godfather 3) Michael’s eventually being forced to witness extreme tragedies rooted in actions HE took as a younger man, we can and should ask what led to the downfall.
Well…the seeds planted by Vito, of course. But it isn’t fair to say that Michael had no choices. We always have choices. And if the murder of Fredo in Godfather 2 is pretty clear evidence that he has become a monster, it is reasonable to ask if that is the first evidence.
And…I say not. We can go back to the first movie, and find a big stinking pile of dead soul, in the form of his execution of Connie’s husband. I’ve read the book, and interviews with author Puzo and director Coppola, and so far have found nothing to disabuse me of the notion that Connie’s husband was innocent. I watched the scene that lead to his death again last night:
Connie ( Talia Shire), daughter of Vito and Michael’s sister, is an abused, pregnant wife with a philandering husband Carlo (Gianni Russo). Michael’s elder brother Sonny (James Cann) has warned Carlo that if he ever touches Connie again, there will be hell to pay. And an entire neighborhood heard him say it. One night, as Carlo prepares to go out of the house there is a phone call, and a woman tells Connie to tell Carlo that she can’t make the date.
This is critical, because if you think Carlo is setting Sonny up, then you have to look at his behavior in this scene and make it all fit. It should be the behavior of someone about to get savage revenge, but also that of a man about to risk his life assassinating the son of the country’s most powerful Mafia don.
Imagine this scenario. Carlo is a no-good out to have a sexy date. That’s all he is thinking of. His wife comes in and starts accusing him of…well, of doing what he’s doing. Leading to a fight. The fight leads to Connie calling her brother, which leads to Sonny’s ambush and murder as he rushes out of the family compound in a reckless rush.
Time goes on, and one day his brother in law Michael confronts him the an accusation that he was, not part of a manipulation by clever Mafiosi (getting a woman to call Connie to trigger a fight) but deliberate betrayal and murder. You are surrounded by killers who smile at you and whisper: “just confess. Confess and you’ll be fine. You’ll be exiled, that’s all. But don’t insult our intelligence by denying…”
What do you do? If you say yes, you are dead. If you say no, you are dead. But maybe, just maybe, Michael is telling the truth. You cannot be forgiven but will not be totally blamed either. Maybe, just maybe…
Imagine the fear, the doubt. The guilt (he WAS beating Connie. Cheating on her. And this DID lead to the tragedy) is chewing you up inside. And you crumble, and “confess”.
And are killed.
If Carlo was innocent, then Michael’s murderous actions were definitely a major evidence in his corruption. But was it the first?
Was it the murder of the cop and mafia don in the restaurant? I can see that case being made. But because they are “soldiers” in an invisible war, it is arguable that this is simply self-defense, combat. While not “good” behavior in some objective sense, it is understandable, and frankly, I think most audiences agreed with what he did.
There is another moment. It happens in Sicily, when an exiled Michael, bored and in hiding, meets a beautiful girl, Apollonia, and is “hit by the thunderbolt.” He must meet her. He describes her to a local merchant, who is angered immediately: Michael is describing his daughter!
It is clear that the father wants nothing to do with Michael, possibly because he is an outsider, possibly because he has the smell of Mafia about him, possibly because his bodyguards used somewhat crude language to describe the girl.
Who knows? It is a father’s right. And what does Michael do?
He flexes his muscles. He isn’t an ordinary man, he is the son of the most powerful Mafia don in America. He tells the father his real identity, and then says that if the father talks, he will be killed. On the other hand, if he cooperates, his daughter will get a rich and powerful husband.
Plomo O Plata, as the South American drug lords say. You will take either lead or silver.
Wow. And the father sees the different roads he can take, and makes a tragic decision: to allow this thug to court his daughter.
There it is. The first moment when Michael demonstrates that he LIKES the power. Knows how to use it. Is not a hero, a good man forced by circumstances to protect his family, but rather a man of no real morality, a worse man (IMO) than his gangster father. We see that he does what he wants to do with no real concern for the consequences, that his judgement and whims are more important than the lives of the people around him. And that he is on the road to damnation, even though most of his family precedes him on that path.
“Godfather” really is a great movie, and like all great films, as an imitation of life can be analyzed endless ways. But from the “Lifewriting” perspective, it can be seen as a failure of the “Leap of Faith.”
If he had had FAITH that love and good would come to him after he had done his penance for the murder of men who tried to murder his father, it is plausible that he could have come back into the light, out of the shadows, and lived a good life. But he lacked that faith, and went after an entertainment that he probably didn’t even kid himself was actually “love.” Did he ever mention his first wife again? To anyone? Certainly not in the films. Did she matter to him at all? Who can say?
But we can see a man taking a small step off the path of righteousness, and he would keep taking those steps across six hours of film, leading to utter disaster.
It isn’t the big things. It is the small ones. That “path” described by the Hero’s Journey, or the Yogic Chakras, or Milton Erickson or Abraham Maslow is one of growth, maturation, contribution. Not being side-tracked by the fool’s gold of dishonorable wealth and power, meaningless sex, or over-indulgence. Navigating a complex world while keeping your eyes on the ultimate values of life.
So easy to lose your way. Vito Corleone did what he did to protect his family. Michael did what he did arguably in IMITATION of this, but actually to relish the power he’d always craved from afar. A bad man. Who might have avoided ever nurturing that evil if life had been just a little different.
THAT is a movie. THAT is a story. And…THAT is a cautionary tale for all of us. Doing what seems expedient, for “the right” reasons, is still skipping down the road to hell. Doing the “right” thing early would have prevented this. A ripple effect of returning to America and letting his father’s lieutenants divvy up the empire, maybe taking his father home to Sicily. Marrying Kay, having never intimidated a simple Sicilian father into offering up his daughter.
A different path. Possibly even a great movie. But a different one, arguably told from a different perspective.
A better one for Michael, certainly. “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!” he screams in Godfather III.
No, Michael. There is no “they.” there is only you. And you were not the man you thought you were. And because of that, everything you loved…died.
It’s the little lies that get us. Especially the ones we tell ourselves.
(“Do Not Think Dishonestly” is not only a principle of the classic “Book of Five Rings” martial strategy, but a core lesson for all of life, and a foundation of the SOULMATE PROCESS. Join us for a FREE exploration of this path of “adulting” in February. WWW.SOULMATEPROCESS.COM