Pillbox

An Analysis and Review of 'The Godfather' (1972)

It is difficult to design a story that makes its audience commiserate with a person of wicked and sinful nature. We know that the way to reach a state of complete evil is not an instant choice but a slow and dark burning process within a person’s soul. I find it interesting that Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) does not care for the romanticization of a life of crime, but it rather focuses on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino); it wishes to tell us how the presence of evil within a family is an abyss that can corrupt anyone, no matter how sensible or rational they seem to be, and how assimilation into another country’s culture is a complex process that can pull a person apart — tearing them between the old and new country’s identities.

The beginning line of the film has depth when you begin to realize what the film is trying to tell you. “I believe in America. I raised my daughter in an American fashion,” and the following conversation between the pleading undertaker and Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) shows us the inner workings of the mob. On the surface, the private life of the mob is one of honor and principle, of favors and dealings to protect the meek when no one else will. All the mob wishes to do is shelter their family from the many ways that the predatory world is trying to attack them and the enemies that the family makes within their dealings. The act of backroom dealings, that is, paying for services when justice doesn’t go in your favor, is a deal with the devil and a story as old as time itself. Ultimately, there is nothing good that comes from these sorts of dealings, and the film makes it known that this sort of zeal to shift the world in your favor — to lie, cheat, steal and kill everything in one’s path in a blind spur of wrath — leaves a person devoid of rationale and goodness.

One of the key characteristics of the "Godfather" films is the use of shadows. The films get darker as they progress, with some critics at the time calling this characteristic a production error and drawback, but I believe that the shadows stand as a representation of the dishonesty of the Corleone mafia family. The film serves as a sinkhole that drags the viewer — just as circumstance drags Michael through evildoing — leaving them washed in melancholy. Just as the shadows consume more and more of the screen, the tenebrosity of Michael’s clothing engulfs him, showing how far he has fallen from the man he was at the film's beginning.

When we first meet Michael at the vibrant and lively wedding scene, he tells his then-girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) of the coercion of innocent people into dealings that work against them; that the facilitation of vices to tempt the lowly is “his family, not him.” His clean, marine medal-decorated, Ivy League good boy image is far from the murderous and greedy malpractices of his father and his army of mobsters. He is distant from his family as his father, who stands by the code that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” nevertheless understands and is okay with Michael’s path being different than his. He knows that Michael has the possibility to make the Corleone family legitimate, rising out from the crime and poverty of the old country as a first-generation immigrant within America, as a Senator or a Governor. Vito is a man visibly haunted by the actions he has committed in the past. He doesn’t want a life of crime or poverty for his children, so he does whatever he can to push them ahead just a little further in a society that hates them, despite knowing that what he does is wrong and that after he is gone, he’s going to be forever in debt to the sins he has committed.

Unfortunately, Vito knows that his departure from this world hangs close on the horizon, and in a similar fashion to the Shakespearean tragedy of "King Lear," one of his sons, the hot-headed “Sonny” Santino (James Caan), the thin-skinned bachelor Fredo (John Cazale), or Michael, will succeed him in the position of patriarch for the family. It’s just a matter of if he can muster up an ending to his legacy that allows his family to come out of the life of crime safely. When the rise of narcotics comes to the organized crime table, Don Corleone remains steadfast in his belief of legitimacy for the family, stating his position that, despite the money that the narcotics industry will bring him and his family, he cannot and will not allow the Corleone family to dirty themselves with anything larger than small vices on an organized level. The temptation of money, however, is too powerful for the other families and infighting ensues, beginning a war that leaves Vito an unconscious target of assassination and Sonny as the temporary head of all dealings.

It is when Michael hears that there has been an attempt on his father’s life that he runs to protect his family, placing him on the path of becoming a gangster. The moment that he bends down to his father’s hospital bed and whispers to him that he is “with him now,” his journey has been set. Through the arguing of Sonny and family lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) on whether or not the matter of assassination is business or personal, Michael decides that he will do the unthinkable and murder both the man who put a hit on his father and the corrupt police captain who tried to stop Michael from defending him. Within a small family-owned Brooklyn pizzeria, the thoughts of what Michael is about to commit can be seen rattling within his eyes. He knows that after murdering these two men, his fate will be sealed, and there will be no way out for him. Regardless, he keeps to this plan because either he knows that it’s a matter of sacrificing himself for his family, or maybe he sees attacks on his family as personal and sees righteousness in taking justice into his own hands, just as his father used to do.

After all, Michael seems to be a person who springs to the idea of defending what he considers "good," even if he has to lay down his life or take someone else’s to do so. He subscribes to the American ideals, voluntarily serving as a Marine in World War II. By marrying the non-Italian Kay Adams and by describing himself to others under the label of “American” while his family labels themselves “Sicilian,” he teeters on the edges of two identities which cannot seem to go together.

The honorable is an ambiguous thing within "The Godfather," and Michael learns that the actions of his family, though objectively evil, are becoming more and more clear as necessary within a world that will thrash you about if you allow it. As police and justice fail again and again, Michael turns to see his father’s doings as correct in a world where everything you do, no matter what, is wrong. Slowly, these ideals of American perfection slip away, and he ends up being a man willing to do anything, right or wrong, to care for and defend the people closest to him.

Near the end of the picture, when meeting back up with Kay years later, when she recalls that he promised her he wouldn’t become like his father, he tells her that his “father is no different than any other powerful man,” and that any man who is in power, whether they be a president or a peacemaker, is willing to have people murdered for the sake of taking care of other people. It is a dark change to the once proud-to-serve man that he was introduced as. This is further exemplified when the bloodshed of his family’s war with the other crime bosses leaves his brother Sonny dead — viciously ripped apart by sub-machine guns — and the final moments of Vito — who passes while playing with his grandson in his backyard. The complete domination of business in Michael’s life comes as he seeks to expand the Corleone organized crime reach into Las Vegas, where he belittles his older brother to “never take sides with anyone against the family again.” He wants to control everything and everyone, making sure that no one gets out of line against his wishes and proceedings.

The ultimate culmination of all this comes when he becomes the godfather to his sister’s son interspliced with his revenge against the four other families. During the proceedings, he is asked by the priest if he believes in God, and if he renounces Satan and his works. Michael claims that he does, as his orders are acted out and his enemies are massacred. He lies and plans to lie to whomever to get what he wishes, and in this way, he has become just like his father, with the exact same view of the world and its many problems.

The film ends with Michael murdering the abusive husband of his sister for betraying the family and getting Sonny killed, and dismissing his sister when she comes crying and spitting and thrashing at him. He lies to Kay about the murder after promptly yelling at her for asking him about his business affairs, with the final line of the movie being him crowned as Don Corleone, as the door to the study where the film opened is shut on Kay, fading us into complete and utter blackness. It is a masterful ending that leaves the audience in a dreadful state of hushed suppression. Michael's soul has been sold, and the tragedy caused his fall from grace. He is the embodiment of the evil which he first sought to end. A 9.75 out of 10 film.

TD;LR: “The Godfather” tells the tragic tale of how a person can be broken by a hunger for power that slips them from their original ideals of honor. Through temptation, a person once of goodness and justice will see themselves become the thing that they once hated. It serves as a warning that if we as a society continue on a path of destruction of our values, we will see ourselves as enemies to ourselves, engulfed in nothing but evil.