Does the Godfather believe in America? – OpEd – Eurasia Review

By Titus Techera*

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece shines a light on how attempts to overthrow American institutions in the name of superior personal justice can fail catastrophically. Ultimately, human nature will not be subverted.

This month, the Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of the premiere of The Godfather, an important film, a film that we used to call iconic at one point, and which perhaps will be remembered as featuring a number of actors, starting with Al Pacino. Francis Ford Coppola, who had already won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Patton (1970), became an important director and attempted to give Americans a cinema of tragic proportions, a new dignity to replace the old proprieties that his generation, New Hollywood, had mocked and ruined.

A friend recently referred to this contemporary judgment by William F. Buckley Jr.: “It is truly embarrassing and far from surviving as advertised while the carried away by the wind gangster movies i guess The Godfatherwill be forgotten as quickly as it deserves. This is the conclusion of a short prissy review; the famous intellectual doesn’t hesitate to admit his ignorance – he doesn’t know why the characters act the way they do, but he thinks he knows too well why the director made the film the way he did: sensationalism, cheap trickery . Moreover, Buckley asserts that Puzo’s novel is superior to the film, no doubt out of loyalty, from one novelist to another.

Today, Buckley’s reasoning is as mystifying as Coppola’s cinema was then. I don’t think Buckley would have found any clever explanations of the plot of the film or the motivations of the characters incomprehensible, but he obviously wasn’t interested, didn’t want to exert his famous mind at all to understand the film – he wanted to humiliate who would like: it’s in bad taste! Ultimately, I think it’s because he finds Coppola’s vision of America abhorrent. Citizenship does not matter in The Godfather. Americanization, assimilation, the experience of immigrants moving from the Old World to the New and modernizing in the process – this story turns to tragedy instead of progress.

Another friend recently suggested that it’s worth considering the Italians in Coppola’s films (and perhaps Scorsese’s) in the light of identity politics. When it comes to film, Italian Americans began to be needed to play Italian characters, no doubt for the sake of authenticity. But at the same time, I will add, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, the Italians have become the exemplary white Americans of this whole generation: I need only mention Rocky and Serpico! This identity also led to certain types of stories and a certain taste that Buckley obviously rejected, not to say reviled. He would have preferred a cinema and an identity that turns Americans to the once admired institutions that gave conservatism not only its mission but also its dignity. To keep this America would have been to keep something great.

Coppola chose, ultimately, not only to adapt a rather trashy novel by Puzo, but also to pursue a kind of storytelling that would turn to criminals rather than exemplary, admired and honored citizens. Worse still, among these criminals and their European ideas, he found the crux of the politico-theological problem, the rule of a man who has divine sanction rather than the sanction announced by the Declaration of Independence: “Just powers issued with the consent of the governed. Marlon Brando modeled Don Vito Corleone (Coeur de Lion) on Mafia mannerisms, which are caricatures or grotesques of aristocracy, as they are never far from ferocity. Buckley himself had certain aristocratic mannerisms, of course, but they tended in exactly the opposite direction; he had a way of doing things that American blue-collar workers might call bland, for example. Coppola modeled The Godfather on something close to the divine right of kings: religion sanctions a man whom his people hold in admiration, unable to consider himself as his equal.

In The Godfather, therefore, Coppola asks the question, will America remain America? Will this be the country you heard about in Lincoln’s rhetoric? Or – was it already that? What if the American people lived out their politico-theological drama in a very different way? This is not to say that Coppola suggested that America might be in a future where divine kings roam the fruity plains, only that belief in the Constitution, individual rights, and impersonal justice might fade, or in any case be significantly weakened. In this regard, Coppola proved prophetic – Buckley had every reason to abhor the vision before his eyes. We look around these days and we’re not even sure what we’re trying to say when we talk about justice in America.

Coppola’s film is great precisely because it raises all these questions, because it gives American art, an essentially average art worthy of a middle-class nation, the dignity of raising the most issues that human beings have to face – but in the process, he can’t help but reveal that American justice is questionable. Tragedy, after all, cannot help presenting tragic heroes as admirable, attractive, and thus tempting us to imitate them so that we ourselves in turn are admirable and attractive, or at least we imagine such. The popularity of The Godfather thus offers a form of democratic choice that endangers the constitutional understanding of self-government in America.

The Godfather goes below the level of American decency, but also rises above the level of ordinary ambition – it offers protagonists who think they are too big for America. They are not just criminals, because they implicitly deny that the police do justice or that the laws are just. They are enemies of America, and they might not be as easily contained as we are used to thinking. They can be violently destroyed, but in a sense they cannot be punished, because they reject America’s authority. It is what we can rightly call subversion, and if we learn to look at America with the care that Coppola demands of his audience, we will see wherever we find glamor also the pretensions of an aristocratic past that announces that the human heart is governed by passions or desires. too immoderate to support self-reliance, that our imaginations harbor expectations too high for us to tolerate the procedures of our justice and the claims that our rights come from nature.

Hence the very convoluted story of Michael Corleone, who fulfills his father’s wish, to Americanize himself enough to be respected and feared in America, to be one of the powerful few rather than one of the weak many. In the process, Michael finds himself uniquely able to learn the weaknesses of America he subverts and thus teach us how we might need to change in order to defend orderly freedom from this corruption. The external threat of unassimilated immigrants thus becomes the internal threat of decadence. Michael suggests the same when he calls his girlfriend WASP naive.

The Godfather suggests that the family is the weakest part of the American way of life—there, American ideas of justice must always run counter to human nature. After all, there are families all over the world, with no need for American institutions; more importantly, in America, the love of one’s own family still threatens to corrupt supposedly impersonal institutions. The rise of prominent political families and a wealthy family class would seem to prove Coppola right, mocking claims of equal citizenship and reinforcing the idea that America’s future is made up of diverse identity groups that go back to family, biology and race.

Coppola’s cinema is so disturbing precisely because it asks us to look at what we cherish most as potentially dangerous. Michael Corleone’s success as a businessman suggests that it is far less obvious that we think trade is for the common good or that capitalism is anything but a dangerous form of gambling that calls for thinking people being able to fix the game. Given how angry so many of us are with our most famous corporations, Coppola would seem to be right in his warning here, too.

That’s not to say that Coppola wanted to offer a defense of Michael Corleone or the wickedness he represents, the assertion that necessity excuses everything. Michael ends up losing everything he loves; we learn that he cannot escape the consequences of his will to murder. This may be enough to prove that our attraction to glamour, quick success and unfair gains is doomed; but the failure of anarchy is not enough to make America beautiful and admirable again. The success of Coppola’s cinema has made us more interesting to study, because we care much more about whether we are good and whether we can keep the good things we cherish.

We still live in Coppola’s America and as angsty as Buckley suggested. He touched greatness as an artist because he was a patriot, he wanted the best for America – indeed, his natural tendency towards tragedy is a way of emphasizing that America is great and therefore contains great conflicts. We need stories of agony and justice to see that America is great and at the same time to feel compelled, even destined, to deal with the American drama rather than taking it all for granted or not s worry about it. We don’t really have stories about justice, only about increasingly ugly injustice; we don’t have a great talent like Coppola to tell us how to look at ourselves. Individualism, modernization and a cynical rationalism – these traits seem to be advancing everywhere and, to our most pugnacious or partisan, we are looking more and more like Michael Corleone, angry at our failures, always trying to cheat the system, unwilling to accept defeat or to believe in justice, to seek to control everything for fear of losing everything.

*About the author: Titus Techera is the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation.

Source: This article was published by the Acton Institute

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