Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Tragic Greatness

Michael Corleone succeeds precisely by corrupting American institutions and putting on a show of respectability in business.

The Godfather: Part II
The movie "The Godfather: Part II", directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel 'The Godfather' by Mario Puzo. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of very few movies in the last half-century that can contend for the title of greatest film made in America. Coppola is still identified with it, although he has other great films to his name, and in our public memory he has simply taken possession of the story, although it was already an incredibly popular 1969 novel by Mario Puzo when Coppola got the idea to make it a movie, with the novelist’s help. The two are as different as possible, the movie elegant and tragic in dignity, the novel trashy and lacking a carefully crafted structure.

The Godfather is worth celebrating, but it is no easy feat to celebrate it, beyond putting the disc in and watching it again, remembering the times before. I can think of three major problems stopping us from acting on our love for the movie, or rather preventing us from understanding its claim to greatness and feeling its artistic power.


First, Coppola was a master who made movies of importance to America and was honored with Oscars; now, we have almost no masters left, and, indeed, movies have almost lost their fame entirely. There are people who pretend to worship film as art and there are others who pretend to worship the popularity of Marvel movies and their like. The fragments of the cinema Coppola put together have lost their importance with the separation of time and the consequent debasement of the audience, so that no movie is of any importance to an American as an American anymore.

Second, just as we have forgotten that there are rare artists of astonishing ability, we have forgotten that it is possible for us to come together as an audience, rather than being endlessly distracted and pulled apart by entertainments that we are happy enough to forget in a hurry. Americans these days largely pass on to their kids worse Star Wars movies than the ones they saw as kids.

Third, and perhaps as a consequence, we have lost sight of America. Only a story touched by greatness can give an account of the promise and the suffering involved in loving America the way people do, or used to do, at any rate. There is something to be said for looking at the country from the point of view of someone who wants to embody it. The Godfather is a story about Americanization and it has a protagonist made remarkable for his virtues and vices, remarkable compared to the boring ones now common.

This perspective may also help us look at the movie and see again why it is startling rather than reassuring in its excellence. When last I watched it, I asked myself and my friends: 'When in this story does Michael Corleone really become an American?'

Perhaps right at the beginning, when he attends his sister Connie’s distinctively Italian wedding in his Army uniform, a college kid who volunteered to serve in WWII. He is busy explaining to his girlfriend that he’s not like his family—they shock and delight here, carrying on in their Old World beliefs and habits, as well as their involvement in deadly violence. Perhaps the girlfriend, Kay, a WASP from the Ivy League, as upper class as possible and as different as possible to an Italian girl from Sicily, is also a sign of his Americanization, his desire to leave behind the way of life epitomized by his father.


But Michael famously goes back on his heart’s desire and becomes the godfather his father had hoped he would never have to become. This great change conceals to some extent Michael’s continuing Americanization. For example, he proposes to disbelieving members of his crime family that they should kill a cop, before volunteering to do it himself. The idea did not occur to them; there are limits, they think, in the competition between crime and authority. Assassination is not very American, but feeling certain that authority isn’t all that important and that public feeling and the press can be swayed certainly is. Michael knows America a lot better than his older brothers.

After this bloody deed, Michael hides in Sicily to escape the police, meanwhile learning about the country that made his father who he is. Nevertheless, on his return, he continues his Americanization. He marries Kay, who had forgotten about him, in order to have a respectable future for his great ambitions. And he embarks on the murder of his brother-in-law to obtain the power to fulfill that ambition, which foreshadows his eventual murder of his brother. Such bloody deeds follow wherever intrigue, treachery, and cruelty are common; they are not American. But the principle behind them is a kind of individualism. It ruins the one non-American principle Michael inherited: unconditional devotion to family, which one cannot dissolve or modify except by adding to its greatness and its clients. After all, the mafia, to the extent it succeeds, depends on a perverted but ferocious insistence on family unknown in the modern world, which is why we are unprepared for it. Instead, Michael must end up alone, a man for whom nothing is sacred, and who loses everyone he loves.

Michael becomes a very successful businessman, and wants to move the family business to Las Vegas. Indeed, he follows symbolically the expansion of America and he Americanizes by proving as changeable as opportunity. There is a fortune to be made and he is the man to make it. A cold calculation seems to remain after his inherited situation is destroyed, at his enemies’ hands and at his own, and money replaces the old fidelities and rivalries. That, too, is somehow part of his Americanization, a perverted understanding of self-interest or of modern rationality. The corporation replaces the family, you might go so far as to say, in the light cast by our own society fifty years onward.

To some extent, Michael serves as a warning to Americans. He is an immigrant’s son, ambitious and humiliated. On the one hand, discrimination, the old liberal summation of all that’s wrong with the world, denies him his freedom and opportunity; but on the other hand, he would never settle for equality with his fellow citizens, too conscious of his superiority. Michael learned from his father great ambition and the desire to become a senator or a governor—one of the rulers.

Father and son both indeed deserve to be protagonists in a drama, because they are men on a much more impressive scale than what we usually see and give us some glimpse into what moves great enterprises. Indeed, in America we say anyone can become president, without sufficient reflection on what that might lead to. In the case of the mafia, maybe more discrimination would have been safer; American hypocrisies are a problem, but organized crime corrupting city politics is a rather worse problem.

Religion, too, of course, comes under Michael’s attack. With the viciousness of a Cesare Borgia, he has massacres planned while he attends church. He astonishes by his indifference to moral rules, which suggests that modernization may not be entirely as happy or decent a transformation of the old ways of life as we might think. Individuals liberated from restraint, even before the rise of the cult of authenticity, might be authentically terrifying.

The immigrant’s story, the self-made man’s story, the American story of achieving great success, which is compatible with and perhaps even necessary to national greatness, is almost entirely reversed in the Godfather. Michael Corleone succeeds precisely by corrupting American institutions and putting on a show of respectability in business. He is part of a gradual political corruption of America that seems to start from moral corruption, one that affects elites especially. And it is their level at which he operates, typically behind the scenes. While every idea of representation or deliberation is made vulnerable by such conspiratorial activity, Corleone is much more a symptom than a cause of the loss of political virtue and public spirit.

Maybe the strangest thing about the movie and its fame is that The Godfather suggests the most interesting men are not people we could get along with, much less depend on. Americans in the ’70s were shedding, perhaps, a certain naivety, but in favor of what? We are in a similar stage now, and the best we can summon is a Dark Knight who defends law and public order, without the hope of a reward. Perhaps we should revisit The Godfather to see our predicament, the reality that greatness is often tragic, and to wonder why we are disunited and misled. Perhaps in a time of great political trouble, we will again take tragedy seriously.