Moviegoers have always had a soft spot for organized criminals, whose rules and rituals provide a dark reflection of the American dream. But modern appreciation of those things is unavoidably seen through the filter of one particular depiction of the mafia, and of Italian-American criminals in particular. It is a film widely considered one of the greatest ever made, regardless of genre, and has deeply influenced audiences ranging from film aficionados to actual gangsters. For a time, it was the most successful move ever made, and very little will ever diminish its lasting prominence. Behold Francis Ford Coppola’s early masterpiece, The Godfather.
The movie begins in 1945 New York, where the Don Vito Corelone presides over his powerful crime family, one of five that controls all illegal activity in New York. Corleone runs a very profitable racketeering business (among others) and owns a large number of politicians. But when he refuses to back an expansion into the heroin trade, a ruthless drug lord named Sallozzo—with the backing of one of the other Five Families—attempts to assassinate Vito and very nearly succeeds. With Vito recovering, his sons take over: the hot-headed Sonny, the feckless Fredo, and the outsider Michael, an Ivy League grad and war hero who was never meant to join the family business. All-out war soon engulfs the Five Families in an endless cycle of assassination, ambush and retaliation, and the Corelone sons each meet their own destiny in a life that once entered, is impossible to leave behind. As the casualties mount, Michael emerges as the heir to Vito’s empire, but receiving his father’s domain and asserting his own authority over it are two very different things. For a guy who was raised to be the family’s shining chance at a legitimate legacy, Michael proves to be a far more capable Don than anyone ever gave him credit for, and far more ruthless then his enemies expected.
The Godfather’s epic scope manages to tell its story in tones that are both sweeping and intimate, concerned with the tidal forces behind the New York underworld as much as the entropy devouring the heart of the Corleone family. The more we learn about how the Five Families counterbalance each other, and how the Corleone family does its business, the more we learn about what kind of man Vito is, and what kind of children he has reared. How good a father can one be when he dedicates himself to preying on other people every day? The results are mixed: Sonny is an impulsive knucklehead and Fredo is a pathetic sniveller. Connie is made of sterner stuff, but too resolved to a subservient role set forth by era, culture and custom to be in control of much of anything. And Michael is the prodigal son who excels at everything except self-awareness. As Michael offers to join his brothers in the mob war consuming New York, Sonny tries to wave him off. Sonny might be a violent boor, but he understands the cruel realities of the family business in ways that Michael does not, and will have to learn the hard way. The problem is, learning things the hard way in this business usually gets you killed. Is that what Michael really wants? It’s the kind of question to which few can ever give an honest answer.
As we watch the labyrinthine story unwind, we are given ample opportunities to witness the inextricable links between power, violence and corruption. Each of these things can take many forms, and most people only ever experience a few of them over the course of their lifetime. The point of the Corleone’s family business is to understand all of them so they might each be wielded expertly when the time comes. The Corleone aren’t a normal family that just happens to be a crime syndicate. It is a crime syndicate so successful that it can pretend to be a real family. Those within this world can fool themselves over the nature of what they do, but it is a fiction that cannot last forever.
We see this in the movie’s opening scene, an extended sequence that chronicles Connie’s lavish wedding and introduces every member of the Corleone family—both blood and professional. It’s a terrific opening that gives us a memorable insight to how Vito runs things, what kinds of people his children are, and all that the Corleones have built together. It is an empire that in one world is remarkably strong, and in another is just as brittle. The ease with which Sonny dispatches unwanted photographers, and the trembling reverence of Vito’s petitioners all speak to how much power the Corleones wield. But the ease with which federal agents stroll up and serve papers during the reception also points to how vulnerable this empire can be. It is a prescient detail that unfolds in numerous ways over the course of the story, which all comes back to this wedding day, the last happy day the Corleone family will ever know. After this, it’s nothing but trouble, and none of them can see it coming.
Except, perhaps, for Michael, who has lived on the periphery of his family’s profession without having dirtied his hands over it. Storming beaches as a Marine is one thing. Putting a bullet in a guy’s head while he is eating dinner is something else. This is the kind of line that can never be uncrossed, which is why The Godfather’s moment of truth is its midpoint, when Michael finally avenges his father’s attempted murder, and exchanges one destiny for another. Or so we think. As Michael pivots, he might be new to his new life, but he takes to it with surprising ease. Just like everybody else, we have underestimated the Corleone’s prodigal son, leaving us to wonder, exactly how much innocence did he really have to lose? Some families are so bloodstained, its heirs are born with red hands.