The Federalist ran my column, “We Can’t Stop Watching ‘The Godfather’ Because It’s Not Cynical About America,” as people were preparing for the holidays. And by “people,” I mean me, so here are my usual additional thoughts and deleted tangents, however tardy.
The column was largely inspired by Kyle Smith’s retrospective at National Review. He intentionally narrowed his focus to the notion of justice in the film. I largely agree with it as far as it goes. And I understand that he may have been tired of “big picture” takes on the film.
But Smith also addresses in passing this idea of left and right having different takes on The Godfather, as well as the notion that it depicts a “parody” of the American Dream. It occurred to me that the former was in some tension with the latter (and that left-right is not the only factor that may cause people to enjoy the film differently from each other).
While directorial intent is not the be-all, end-all of film crit, Coppola’s audio commentaries of these films pointed toward the idea that he was presenting much more than a critique of American society or capitalism. Also, in some of the documentaries in the various Godfather box sets, we see the genuine affection Italian-Americans — and those of mixed cultural heritage — have for Coppola’s other themes that had nothing to do with the mafia or social commentary.
Accordingly, I felt it was important to argue that The Godfather is a great piece of art (or entertainment at a minimum) because it touches upon deep subjects, but through a lens of human experience that necessarily does not adhere to a particular ideology. To the extent that its themes can serve as a metaphor for the American experience, the left can judge the Corleones as having this corrupt and cynical core which will preclude them from ever “going legit.” The right can appreciate that — mafia context aside — all humans are fallen, that “legit” may be a utopian ideal, and that the struggles and failures in trying to get there over the course of generations are what gives our lives meaning.
Moreover, it was worth looking at the film as a bit of an exercise in nostalgia, because the further we get from its initial release, the less likely we are to recognize that it was nostalgic even upon its release. And as Don Draper once noted, nostalgia is “delicate, but potent” in a way that can create a sentimental bond with the underlying product.
This organic complexity is a significant reason The Godfather endures. It is in this sense that Joe Fox is correct in telling Kathleen Kelly that The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. It may have all the answers, but they are all answers open to interpretation.
Lastly, coming full circle, I’ll note that when Smith and Ross Douthat discussed Smith’s piece during their new podcast, Projections, Douthat offered a structural reason for why the film is so compelling. He correctly notes that for all of the other things The Godfather is, it is also a fairly relentless succession of set pieces built around action and suspense. That the film also works so well on this level, leading to a savage climax that improves upon the book (in which the reprisals are not synchronized), only underscores how the movie’s multi-faceted nature made it a classic.
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