Convince Me: Why is “The Godfather” (1972) so great?

In the inaugural “Convince Me” post, wherein one of us tries to convince the other why a movie is truly great, Nick tries to convince Ryan on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Warning: SPOILER ALERT!

Ryan: Alright, Nick. I watched The Godfather for the first time this week. It didn’t sink its hooks into me, but I can appreciate some things about it. It looks great, for the most part. It’s really two movies in one; both center on Michael. The first depicts his return from World War II up until the assassination. The second is his return from hiding in Italy to his ascension to Don of the Corleone family. My mind was not blown, nor was I particularly charmed this go around. Convince me — why is The Godfather so great?

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Nick: Before I get started, I just want to say one thing first: I’ve never had to defend The Godfather from someone who has seen it. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but in my life I’m surrounded by people who put it on an altar of their love for cinema. Though I was a late bloomer (I first saw The Godfather as a high school junior), I am no different than them and the millions of people who’ve seen it since its 1972 release. We perpetuate it’s growing legacy. So, with that out of the way and before I really begin to ramble, can you identify the reason(s) The Godfather didn’t present itself as a true experience?
Ryan: I didn’t care for the characters. I suppose that’s the predominant issue. Sonny is assassinated. OK. Michael assassinates the drug dealer and the policeman. OK. Vito Corleone is gunned down. OK. Vito Corleone dies in his garden. OK. Tessio is taken off to be killed at the end. OK. I’m being blunt here. I don’t want Sonny or Vito or Tessio to die, but when it happens I’m not shedding any tears. We watch the family, but I don’t feel like I’m part of it.

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Nick: I can’t argue with you because you didn’t care for the characters; you can’t force care. So I won’t. But I do want to touch on the complexity of the characters. This you can’t deny. Hopefully, by recognizing the complexity of the characters, you’ll find your “in.”
Yes, Vito and his family–both his blood and his crew–are hoods, gangsters, outlaws. But they see their actions as “nothing personal…it’s strictly business.” Though this is said and followed to great effect, is it really not personal? Is not everything the Corleone clan does not for the sake of their own?
Do we not relate to this?
Wouldn’t we go to great lengths to care for our own? This question has turned over in my head since the day I first watched The Godfather.
The family, particularly Vito and his three sons, do what they feel they need to. The audience becomes privy to secret conversations in the dark. During these moments, we come to recognize Vito as a man of patience and cunning, a romantic and empathetic figure, and a leader capable of murder when it needs to be done. As I’m sure you recognized, the sons all embody one part of their father: Sonny is passionately hotheaded as he leads with his temper, Fredo is soft spoken and sweet, Tom (the adopted son) epitomizes walking patience, and Michael has his father’s brains and cunning.
Maybe I care more about the family’s cause than the family itself, but it’s easy to be charmed by these characters. That’s a testament to the acting and the story’s angle — everything we observe for the better part of 3 hours is from the inside of what we would commonly describe as a criminal underworld. We are immersed in this world that runs parallel to what you and I would be more familiar with. The legitimate world if you will. But how much more moral are people and things outside the Corleone compound? We are dealing with crooked cops, lead by Sterling Hayden’s snarling Captain McCluskey, and dishonest politicians (cough, cough Part II). Yeah, the Corleones and the rest of the Five Families are no saints, but Coppola asks us, “who is?” Under the leadership of Don Corleone there’s at least a peculiar sense of honor in what the family does, loyalty to one another, and even justice. All this is, and the ultimately the family’s allure, is set up in the film’s first 7 minutes. 
Ryan: The business is entirely personal. It’s all family-based, based on who you are, what your last name is, and where your allegiance lies. The line “It’s just business” is ironic.
I’ve been thinking about this movie through a monarchy lens. After Sonny, the heir apparent, dies, Michael’s the only legitimate son left. Fredo is a dumb-dumb and Tom is not Italian. Mike edges his brothers out. He exiles his brothers out West in fabulous Las Vegas, and he seals the deal by knocking off the other Dons.
Nick: “Exile” is the wrong descriptor. It would be more appropriate to think of Michael as an expert chess player moving the pieces for a win. This and the “changing of the guard” angle that we are witness to before Coppola literally closes the door (symbolism!) on our inside look is further played out in what is a darker and intricate film in Part II. Now, I have to be careful about spoilers because you haven’t seen the the second and third installments in the trilogy (shame!), but I will say the character dynamics we see here are built upon and further explored. In short, it’s necessary for you to be open to the possibility that you need to do two things to really appreciate The Godfather‘s nuances:
first, revisit the the first film and pay particular attention to the the dynamic between Vito and Michael, father and son.
That’s the film’s beating heart. That’s the tragedy.
Second, watch Part II!!!
Ryan: I’ll let you know how it goes.
Nick: It’s perhaps the most influential character-driven drama to come out of American cinema; liking them isn’t a necessity, it might even lend itself to a unique look at the film I’m not capable of.
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