The 45th anniversary of “The Godfather” has brought us another Blu-Ray box set and another round of critical reappraisal of the mafia movie classic. The secret of the film’s enduring appeal, however, might be found in its opening line: “I believe in America.”
It is often said that “The Godfather” is an ironic commentary on the American Dream. That conventional wisdom may say more about movie critics than about “The Godfather,” which has a more nuanced subtext.
Coppola’s Fight to Keep ‘The Godfather’ A Period Piece
Director Francis Ford Coppola fought many battles to realize his vision for “The Godfather.” His most important was to demand that it remain a period piece over the studio’s wish that it be set in contemporary St. Louis instead of 1940s New York.
Coppola saw “The Godfather” as a story about America flowering as a world power in the immediate post-World War II period. During pre-production, he created a notebook analyzing how he would adapt the novel, and “the times” informed every major section.
Gordon Willis brought his signature darkness to the cinematography, as he did with other 1970s classics, including “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View.” But only in “The Godfather” (and Part II) did he color-time the film to look like home movies, how we imagine the 1940s looked more than they actually looked.
Placing the audience in the position of looking back is a key to how Coppola and his team present the themes of “The Godfather.” It is also key to how audiences have processed those themes—even if subconsciously—since 1972, when we were losing a war instead of winning one.
For example, “The Godfather” is obviously about the immigrant experience in America. The film focuses on one of the darker aspects of this experience. Historically, many immigrant communities have had a phase where organized crime is notable. This did not bother Coppola, an Italian-American. He understood this was one small part of his much larger canvas.
Moreover, this is how Italian-Americans generally have understood “The Godfather.” In 1972, America was closing a chapter in its history of primarily European immigration. Italian-Americans and similar communities were proud of assimilating into the middle class. The movie was seen as a validation, not an indictment.
A Celebration of Family
That audiences viewed “The Godfather” more as a celebration was reinforced by film’s focus on the idea of family. That idea is now a standard trope of the mafia genre, but it was fresh in 1972. “The Godfather” is suffused with Coppola’s family experiences as an Italian-American, particularly in the opening wedding sequence. The quasi-documentary style in which this set piece was shot reinforces the sense of watching a home movie.
Ultimately, the family life depicted is more malign than the patriarchy of “Father Knows Best.” Yet the sexism is often about literally shutting women out, an implicit admission of the immoral world the men perpetuate. The weight placed on family predominates such that we still relate to the characters.
The period context again matters a great deal. In 1972, family was one of many traditional institutions reeling from the tumult of the 1960s. Audiences did not (and do not) have to embrace reactionary sexism to appreciate the power of nostalgia for a time when families were more stable.
Going West to Grow with the Country
In addition to the immigrant experience, “The Godfather” addresses the migrant experience within America. In the first half of the film, Don Corleone dips his toe into the waters of Hollywood. By the end of the movie, the Corleone family is going West and growing up with the country, to use a phrase popularized by Horace Greeley.
Of course, Greeley was referring to the westward expansion of the mid-1800s. But part of the American story rests in the migration that exploded after WWII, partially fueled by returning soldiers like Michael Corleone. It is the story of Los Angeles and San Francisco becoming major cities and the story of Seattle and Phoenix as much as Las Vegas.
By 1972, America was becoming a fully bi-coastal nation. The dominance of New York as a focus of our culture industries (excepting movies) was slipping away. Ironically, at this point, Hollywood’s studio system was on life support. Institutions like Paramount were bought by large corporations like Gulf + Western, which almost stripped the studio’s real estate holdings during this period.
It is commonly held that “The Godfather” critiques the cartel capitalism of the period. Coppola has described it this way, although he has admitted that he probably could not have thought to pitch it as such when he was preparing the film. Yet even on the subject of capitalism, “The Godfather’s” brief references to communism do not recommend it as an alternative. Moreover, Coppola issues a far more direct critique of cartel capitalism in 1988’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”
The timing and framing of the film again informs how we process its treatment of American cartel capitalism. In 1972, the other WWII powers had rebuilt their industrial capacity and started to compete with the United States again. Union membership began a steep decline. “The Godfather” looks back at American economic power at the dawn of the current period of economic globalization.
An Enduring Concern for Law and Order
Lastly, there is “The Godfather’s” attitude regarding crime and justice. At the outset of the film, Bonasera believes in America but turns to Don Corleone when the judicial system fails him. Revenge is always a popular theme in cinema. It is a sentiment to which audiences could relate in 1972 and in ensuing generations.
But issues of law and order were particularly on the American mind in 1972 and played a role in President Nixon’s election four years earlier. Violent crime rates had skyrocketed in the late ‘60s and continued to rise until the ‘90s. Our current violent crime rate seems low but roughly remains at what was considered an alarming level in 1972. These concerns are implicit in “The Godfather,” filtered through the overall nostalgia the film evokes, as opposed to the overt role they played in contemporary dramas like 1971’s “Dirty Harry.”
Many film critics tend to view “The Godfather” as having the sort of cynical attitude toward America that Michael displays when Kay claims senators and presidents don’t have men killed. It seems less than coincidental that America recently had experienced a rash of political assassinations.
That generations of audiences have embraced “The Godfather” (and Part II) despite its seamy milieu suggests we process the film’s overall view of America more charitably. As Sally Jupiter would put it in “Watchmen”: “Every day, the future looks a little bit darker. But the past… even the grimy parts of it… keep on getting brighter.”
We can’t stop watching “The Godfather” because we see in it our virtues as well as our vices. “The Godfather” saga’s epic sweep captures a chapter of American greatness just as that chapter was closing, as our institutions were falling into decline. Yet the film does not flinch from America’s warts, capturing the contradictions in our legacy that have formed the subtext for many of our political fights through the present.