The ostensible premise of The Godfather, the film version of which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is that American society is so prejudiced against Italians that extraordinary men such as Vito and Michael Corleone have no choice but to turn to crime. In a way, then, author Mario Puzo was a kind of goombah Ibram X. Kendi, director Francis Ford Coppola the dago Ava DuVernay, and The Godfather the guinea 12 Years a Slave.
If you doubt my claim, consider two scenes. In the first, Michael, back from hiding in Sicily, finally decides to get married (again) and so tracks down his college girlfriend. Kay, the daughter of Yankee protestants (including a minister), has long known the real nature of the Corleone “family business” but had been willing to overlook it because Michael seemed to reject that life for himself. But after the shooting of Sollozzo and McCluskey, Kay knows that Michael has entered that world forever. (In the film, her realization is implied when she visits the Corleone compound and speaks with Tom; in the book, it’s made explicit when, on the same visit, she speaks with Mama.)
To convince Kay to marry him—the word “woo” hardly captures his cold approach—Michael must rationalize his family’s activities:
MICHAEL: My father’s no different than any other powerful man—any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.
KAY: [laughs] You know how naïve you sound?
KAY: Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
MICHAEL: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?
In the book, Michael makes his logic explicit: His father is too great of a soul to have accepted the life that America would have provided him. “He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character,” Michael tells Kay. Since Vito could not be a senator, he had to be a crime boss.
In the second scene, a wistful Don Vito laments to Michael that his son was, in effect, forced into the mafia.
VITO: I knew Santino was gonna have to go through all this. And Fredo … Fredo was … uhh. But I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life—I don’t apologize—to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those … bigshots. I don’t apologize—that’s my life—but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone. Something.
Note, first, that the don presents his own, and Michael’s, dilemma as a choice between starving his family or a life of crime. This is hokum. And it is immediately belied by the don’s sorrow that his youngest son couldn’t become a governor or a senator. What about a middle-class life practicing an honest trade? The idea isn’t even contemplated, for himself or his sons.
Note, too, that Sonny, the eldest brother, “had to” become a Mafioso. Why? This isn’t explained, beyond the hoary cliché to “take care” of the family. But the Corleones are richer than the dreams of avarice. “Need” stopped being a motivating principle for them well before 1920, with the first shipments of Corleone-financed Canadian booze to Corleone-controlled speakeasies all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. And why, in the end, did Michael have to follow his father’s and brothers’ footsteps? He didn’t. The central tragedy of the film is that he chooses to, ostensibly to save his father—this is what he tells himself—but really because he enjoys power.
There are three ways to interpret all this. The first is that Michael, and the don, really believe what they say. It may be genuine belief, or it may be rationalization, but it is not said to deceive.
The second is that Michael is just shining Kay on, telling her what she needs to hear so that she can justify to herself her otherwise shameful desire to marry a gangster.
The third interpretation hinges on Puzo’s and Coppola’s intent. Are Michael and the don speaking for author and auteur, channeling, especially, Coppola’s Watergate-era cynicism? (Though the break-in itself would not happen until three months after the film’s release, the movie is commonly lumped with other jaded products of the early 1970s.) Coppola justified to himself taking on what he considered a low-grade project unworthy of his genius by his ambition to transform the tale into an indictment of capitalism, greed, and the American Dream.
The idea that American anti-Italian bigotry is the root cause of the mafia is obviously stupid. John Podhoretz has called Michael’s exchange with Kay the film’s “single flaw.” If the film’s writer and director actually meant it, wouldn’t that necessarily make The Godfather a bad movie?
It should, and yet it doesn’t, which makes it one of those rare works whose greatness and meaning transcend its creators’ intent. If The Godfather were nothing but greaseball victimization porn, the novel would have sunk without a trace, and the movie would never have been made, much less become the culture-defining classic that it is.
What Podhoretz (and, to be fair, many others) miss is that not only is it possible to interpret these scenes along the first two lines, that interpretation is more consistent to the movie’s, and the characters’, internal logic. Of course, the Don tells himself that his choice of crime is justified. Of course, Michael tells Kay whatever she needs to hear to give him what he wants. These are, let’s remember, bad people consistently doing bad things. Understood in this light, Michael’s manipulation of Kay is a flaw not in the film, but in Michael.
Or is it a strength? Or, perhaps, it’s both—that is, a moral flaw but a personal or (dare I say) political strength? Would Michael survive, much less win, without the amoral cunning he displays in that scene with Kay, and utilizes throughout the story? I can think of at least one man who would say no.
I saw The Godfather before I read Machiavelli’s Prince. I vividly remember reaching chapters 7 and 8 of that “little work” and finding the material eerily familiar, especially the account of Liverotto da Fermo luring his rivals to “a more secret place” the better to … well, read for yourself.
The Prince is, if not a wicked book, at least a book that counsels wickedness. Excuses that Machiavelli is merely a realist telling you how things really are fall flat in the face of his clear advice, such his counsel to “eliminate the line” of a conquered prince—that is, kill his babies. Again, Machiavelli is not merely informing you that people sometimes do such deeds (as if you didn’t know); he is saying that, if you find yourself in a similar circumstance, you must do it, too.
If we insist on making excuses for Machiavelli, a better one is that he wishes to bash us over the head with the seamier side of politics, to shake us out of our torpor that has us deny politics’ rough edge. There is a similarity between his particular targets, the Christians of his day, and their contemporary descendants (religious and secular), who insist on playing fair with those who don’t play fair with them. To borrow language Sonny Corleone uses in the final, flashback scene of The Godfather Part II, Machiavelli considers such people “saps.”
Even if we polished moderns were right that ruthlessness no longer has, or never rightfully had, any place in politics, it’s surely of central relevance to a mob boss. Besides, bad guys often have something to teach the good. What, then, might we learn from applying Machiavelli’s insights to The Godfather?
The first is that greatness is rare, and it matters. Coppola has said that he approached The Godfather as a sort of gangster King Lear, the saga of a great chieftain with three sons who each inherited one of his “qualities,” but none the whole package. (That isn’t really what Lear is about, but whatever.) Sonny has the don’s ferocity and courage, Fredo his compassion and warmth, Michael his cunning and patience.
The don succeeds because he has all three. He manages Machiavelli’s quasi-impossible combination of being at once feared and loved. Sonny is feared by all, and loved by those closest to him, but not by the Corleones’ wider circle. Contrast that with the parade of supplicants to the don in the film’s opening sequence; all but Bonasera the undertaker don’t merely fear and respect, but genuinely love him.
Part of the story is how Michael gradually, painstakingly acquires both respect and fear—first from his immediate family, by the end from everyone. But Michael is never loved, except by his father, for whom he is clearly the favorite. (In the book, Connie is said to be the don’s favorite; the film’s treatment of Vito’s relationship with his children is one of the infinite ways the latter is superior to the former.) The arc of Michael’s whole career, and life, is one of sacrificing love for fear and respect.
Michael first gains respect by demonstrating brilliance. In the scene in which Michael, so to speak, becomes himself, he dazzles a roomful of experienced mafiosi by understanding the family’s dire situation more clearly than all the rest of them put together. He knows what must be done strategically, devises a tactical plan on the spot, volunteers for the mission himself, and successfully carries it out.
In Machiavellian terms, Michael knows how to use “the fox and the lion.” A prince needs both natures, “because the lion does not defend itself from snares, and the fox does not defend itself from wolves. So one needs to be a fox to recognize the snares and a lion to frighten the wolves.” A more perfect description of Michael Corleone couldn’t be penned. Machiavelli immediately continues: “Those who stay simply with the lion do not understand this.” A more perfect description of Sonny Corleone couldn’t be penned.
Coppola’s Lear comparison isn’t wholly off, however. Like that play (and the history plays, and Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, and Lincoln’s Lyceum speech, and … it’s a long list), The Godfather illustrates the pitfalls of succession. Sticking with Machiavelli, the story shows that the don cannot be succeeded, except perhaps by someone who has all his qualities, and no one does. It was rare enough that the don himself had them all.
More important, it shows that the “Corleone family” didn’t adopt Vito’s name simply as a matter of happenstance. The organization literally was his, created by him and impossible to rule effectively by anyone but him. There are many ways in which the story shows that the “family” is in effect a parallel or alternative government—a “state” if you will. But not the modern, impersonal state as we know it, whose powers are (or are supposed to be) transferable to the winners of the last election or the latest appointees of the executive. The Corleone family is rather much more akin to—almost identical with—the personal state of Machiavelli. As Harvey Mansfield explains, for Machiavelli, “stato means both status and state; stato is the status of a person or group while dominating someone else.” The state is never impersonal, but always “someone’s state.”
This, more than Vito’s sons’ lacking all his qualities, is the don’s ultimate succession problem, and the ultimate reason why Michael fails. The latter can, and arguably does, make the strategically and tactically correct move in every situation. But he can’t create the same web of loyalties that encircled and enriched his father. In the sequel, Michael explains to Tom Hagen, “All these men”—meaning his henchmen—“are businessmen. Their loyalty is based on that.” Could one say the same of Luca Brasi’s relationship with Vito? Of Nazorine the baker’s?
The problem isn’t merely that Michael lacks his father’s warmth, though having it would have helped. It is that Michael wasn’t the founder. As Machiavelli explains, while principality is necessary to found states, republican institutions best preserve them. The perpetuation of states is the hardest challenge in politics—more difficult even than founding. Michael not only held on tightly to his power; he constantly increased it. Machiavelli, by contrast, counsels against inheritance and even (contrary to his reputation as this may sound) against one-man rule—after, that is, the necessary foundations have been laid. Power must be shared. A republic will last only “if it remains in the care of many and its maintenance stays with many.”
Above all, any state’s institutions and practices must periodically be “renewed” via “new modes and orders.” Does this mean that the don should have accepted Sollozzo’s deal? Be that as it may, it does suggest that Michael was right to make the move to Nevada, and right to continue his efforts to make the Corleone family “completely legitimate.” These moves, and others, perpetuated his empire and power, but given his other mistakes and shortcomings, not forever. Then again, “all worldly things have a limit to their life.” Maybe the Corleone family was one of those “mixed bodies” that traveled “the whole course that [was] ordered for them by heaven” because of Michael’s prudent stewardship; maybe no one else could have done any better.
However much The Godfather may have to teach us, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a very good movie about very bad people. So why does the right, which claims to stand up for virtue, morality, and the American way of life, love this immoral, anti-American film so much?
To understand that, it helps to turn to another film, not a mob movie, but one with a mobster character: The Good Shepherd. Speaking to a bona fide Yalie-Skull-and-Bones-CIA-WASP (based on James Angleton), an Italian mob boss (based on Sam Giancana) asks:
We Italians, we got our families, and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland, the Jews their tradition. Even the [African-Americans], they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson? What do you have?
The answer, “the United States of America; the rest of you are just visiting,” is at once chilling and unsatisfying. Chilling, because it seems to exclude from America all those mentioned in the question, and many others besides. Unsatisfying, because the implicit premise seems to be that one can have America or—but not and—family, church, homeland, tradition, music, and much else. This is the real message of The Godfather, whether Puzo and Coppola intended it or not.
Consider the opening scene. The aptly named Amerigo Bonasera has been let down by his adopted country, whose ways he strove to espouse. His daughter was brutally assaulted by two men who received suspended sentences. To the don, Bonasera's faith in the country was foolhardy. America was never going to accept him or do right by him. Better to have stuck with tradition, family, and tribal loyalty.
What makes the scene morally complex is that a genuine injustice has been done; two, in fact. Neither has been redressed. To allow things to stand as they are means for injustice to triumph. The don remedies that. He does so in a way that is certainly illegal, likely immoral, and arguably un- or even anti-American, but viscerally satisfying to a large portion of the audience (not least to fathers).
On reflection, though, what the don rejects is less America than modernity itself—at least insofar as modernity is characterized by political order, the rule of law, impartial justice, and a monopoly of violence by the state. The don’s message to Bonasera, and one of the film’s messages to the audience, is that none of that can be counted on. In the end, you either have friends like Don Corleone—friends who can deliver real justice when the system fails, which it will, often—or you are alone.
Machiavelli takes this lesson even further. It is not merely that prudent captains must sometimes circumvent, or better yet openly flout, institutions (although he certainly argues this). It is that the institutions themselves rest on a foundation of un- or even anti-institutional action. As Leo Strauss put it, for Machiavelli, “the foundation of justice is injustice. The foundation of morality is immorality. The foundation of legitimacy is illegitimacy or, in our language, revolution. The foundation of freedom is tyranny.” What elevates Old Nick above the Corleones, at least in intent if not necessarily in effect, is that he means his project to serve the common good. Whether it is possible to use immorality to serve morality is an age-old question that likely can never be resolved. What is clearer is that Machiavelli makes a more sincere attempt than any gangster, real or fictional, to compromise with evil for non-selfish reasons.
Conservatives cherish civilization and understand the importance of institutions. Yet we hate injustice and don’t want it to win when institutions fail, as we know they sometimes do. We are told that it is better to allow their occasional failure than to act outside them, and that we should be satisfied by the knowledge that these institutions matter more than any specific outcome. But often, we aren’t.
It has become, justly, common to make fun of men who constantly quote The Godfather. The effective use of this gag may be the only redeeming quality of the saccharine film You’ve Got Mail. How many times have we heard someone vow to “go to the mattresses” when what he actually means is “send a strongly worded letter”? Many of my friends have taken cannolis, but none (that I know of) has ever left a gun.
We should be grateful that our world isn’t (yet) as lawless and violent as the one depicted in The Godfather. Though even with all the mayhem depicted in the film, the surrounding society—on which the Corleones and all their allies and rivals were parasitic—was still an idyll compared with what we have today.
But the story itself shows where its characters’ immoralism leads. Near the beginning, the don makes clear to Sollozzo that he declines to enter the latter’s business not out of any moral qualms, nor even from misgivings about what the drug trade might do to “their grandmother’s neighborhoods,” but because he calculates that the business will be dangerous to himself and his interests. Most devastatingly, when Michael first walks into Corleone, Sicily, the first thing he notices is the absence of all the men. “Dead, from vendettas,” his bodyguard Callo explains. Even the dons themselves pay a heavy price for the business they’ve chosen. “Tattaglia lost a son; I lost a son,” Vito laments. It may be fun to watch a movie about this life, but what fool would want to live it? For how long would you even live?
In the end, I meet Puzo and Coppola halfway. I reject their indictments of America, both their commonplace attack on “American capitalism and greed” and the preposterous charge of anti-Italian racism. But I take their points—whether they intended them or not—about the nature of power and the limits of supposedly impartial modernity.
The Godfather thus has more in common with The Prince than first appears. Both are enjoyable and profound, and teach hard lessons about politics and human nature. Yet neither is a handbook, a source to be imitated. To really understand how to apply those hard lessons to our own lives, we must look elsewhere—and above.