Along the James River in Virginia, you can find dozens of colonial era plantation houses, a legacy of the British aristocracy transplanted to North America. Dutch patricians founded a very similar type of social order in New York. Newport, Rhode Island was built by Gilded Age money. An estate in the Hamptons recently sold for 145 million dollars. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pointed out that the Walton family is worth more money than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.
For Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the most important politician of the second half of the 20th Century, this is exactly how it should be. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher said. “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” On the other end of the political spectrum, progressive historians like Vernon Louis Parrington and Howard Zinn have argued that the history of the United States can be defined as the struggle for democracy against conservatism. Both rooted for democracy against conservatism, for “society” against the “superior individual,” for the collective effort of slaves and proletarians against their masters.
The first two installments of the Godfather saga came out in 1972, and 1974. After the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the Civil Rights movement, black nationalism, and feminism, most Americans in the early 1970s probably thought that democracy had finally triumphed, that it was only a matter of time before the United States realized its egalitarian potential. But the ruling class had other plans. The coup in Chile, the Powell Memo, the beginning of lavishly funded right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the early 1970s was also the time when the American ruling class began to feel so uneasy about the upsurge of democracy in the 1960s that they decided to crush it for good.
They largely succeeded. Bushes, Clintons, Kochs, Waltons, the DeVos family, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher’s wildest dreams have come true. The United States is no longer governed by democratic, or even democratic republican institutions, but by a network of great families, corporations, and wealthy invidivduals. While Francis Ford Coppola’s motivations for putting Mario Puzo’s novel on film were, perhaps, aesthetic and moral, not historical or political, he has, nevertheless, created the great epic about the feudal reality that underlies the illusion of American democracy.
The Godfather is not just a gangster film or a film about Italian immigrants. For that go to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas or The Public Enemy by William A. Wellman. The Corleones are, of course, Italian immigrants and mobsters, but they’re a lot more. Like the Waltons, the DeVoses, the Clintons, or the Bushes, they are one of the great aristocratic families who manage the United States from behind the scenes. They are above the law. They can kill with little or no fear of jail. They are wealthy beyond the comprehension of ordinary Americans. But they are also under a constant threat from other great, aristocratic families. Coppola’s gangsters are feudal princes, but this is not Louis XIV’s Versailles. It’s the War of the Roses transplanted to New York, Sicily, Havana, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe.
There are two recurring social movements in The Godfather and The Godfather II, the aristocratic court, and the coup. While the film takes place mainly in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, there are no democratic institutions to be seen. There are no public schools. People don’t vote. The mob controls unions, but we never see union organizers. We never see a strike. There are no town meetings or veterans organizations. The world of The Godfather is the old feudal, European world transplanted to the United States, and capitalism, we learn, is better managed by a benevolent King than it is by elected representatives.
The Godfather opens at the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie, or, to be more accurate, at Vito Corleone’s court. It’s a day that the Don, the Godfather, cannot refuse a request from a supplicant. The first supplicant is Amerigo Bonasera. He has come to the king because the democratic state has failed him. His daughter was beaten and raped by three men,who, subsequently, beat the rap in court. Don Corleone is impatient with Bonasera’s court etiquette, but agrees to have one of his soldiers take revenge. Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is not a Goodfellas style thug. Everything about him says “courtly, old world, aristocratic.”
The next movement is a coup. Social change in the Godfather doesn’t come about through elections or collective, social movements, but through violent, elite conspiracies. Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo, a narcotic trafficker needs political support, those politicians that the Don keeps in his pocket “like so many nickles and dimes.” Unlike Amerigo Bonasera, Sollozo knows proper court etiquette. But he’s no humble supplicant. Sollozo’s offer is also a threat. If Corleone turns him down, he will make an alliance with one of the other great aristocratic families. Corleone is a violent mobster, but, like any benevolent prince, he only uses violence to maintain a rough social order, the justice that the state can’t or won’t maintain itself. He has no stomach for narcotics. What’s more, far from keeping politicians in his pocket like so many nickles and dimes, Don Corleone knows that if he steps over a certain line, he will lose his political support. So he rejects Sollozo. Sollozo, in turn, attempts to mount a coup. He lines up his own political support, a corrupt police captain. He makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Corleone in the hope that he can make an alliance with his son, Sonny, or, if that fails, join up with the other crime families to push the Corleones out of their dominant position.
Enter Michael Corleone. While Vito Corleone represents New Deal Capitalism tempered by old world values, Michael Corleone represents neoliberalism. The assassination attempt on Vito Corleone almost succeeded because Vito assumed there was a set of conventions, a line you didn’t cross, a respect for the private world outside of business. Michael Corleone knows that things have changed, that “there is no society, only individuals and families.” If you can get away with it, it’s moral. There are no duties, and there is no court etiquette, only treachery and violence. The Godfather I ends with Michael Corleone staging his own coup, taking out the families who supported Sollozo and solidifying the position of his own family. It also ends with his increasing his power over the Corleone family itself. Loyal consigliere Tom Hagen is demoted. Disloyal family members aren’t banished or demoted. They’re killed. Similar to the way Richard Nixon undercut the State Department by increasing the power of the National Security Adviser, Michael Corleone has ripped apart the traditional social conventions of the Corleone family and made himself dictator.
The Godfather II further expands on the differences between Vito Corleone and Don Corleone. Vito Corleone, like many oligarchs, comes from a humble background, a family in Sicily that had been almost entirely annihilated by a tyrannical crime lord. Coppola’s depictions of Sicily at the turn of the 20th Century are remarkable. The island is almost entirely militarized. Men walk around with rifles and bandoliers. Houses have walls and guard towers. Business is carried out at the point of a gun. On the surface, nothing could be more different from the town of Corleone in Sicily than the New York of the 1920s. But appearances are deceiving. Underneath the swirling, teeming streets of Little Italy, the old order has already established itself. Don Fanucci, a local princeling, rules over the local population by terror and blackmail. Merchants who don’t pay him a percentage of their profits have their lives ruined. Vito Corleone is fired from his job at a grocery store to make way for one of Fanucci’s relatives. Finally Vito, who’s offended at the idea that Fanucci exploits other Italians, organizes yet another coup. He assassinates Don Fanucci and takes his place, replacing Fanucci’s coarse exploitation with a benevolent paternalism that reflects New Deal Capitalism. In one scene, for example, he acts more like a democratic ward boss than a vicious killer, helping a woman save her apartment when a greedy landlord tries to have her thrown out into the street. We begin to see the origins of the benevolent monarch who we met at the beginning of the first film.
At the same time, in a parallel narrative, we see the career of Vito’s son Michael. If Vito Corleone represented the capitalism of the New Deal then Michael Corleone, while not quite practicing the Ayn Rand style of “fuck the poor capitalism,” is a lot closer. He joins a cabal of American oligarchs to set up under a business friendly, and, thus, libertarian government in Cuba. He dodges the Kefauver Committee. We also learn that the Kefauver Committee is just a front for a rival mobster. That’s how deep the corruption goes. He continues to subjugate his own family, attempting to control his grown, and widowed sister Connie’s choice of romantic partners, building a new compound at Lake Tahoe, and, finally, having his brother —who turns out to be a traitor — murdered. Michael Corleone has no interest in maintaining a benevolent, if top down and aristocratic social order like his father’s. He cares for only one thing, his dynasty, his image of himself in his children, in the absolute and eternal rule of the Corleone family. He fails, of course. He’s overthrown, not from the outside or by a revolution from below, but, like any oligarch, from within his own court. His wife Kay, morally outraged over her husband’s murderous career, aborts their unborn child — destroys the oligarch’s DNA — and walks out. The final scene of The Godfather II show Michael Corleone, triumphant over his enemies, but defeated, knowing he has failed to establish a lasting dynasty, that, like Richard III, he and his family, the Yorks, will be overthrown by the first available family of Tudors.
The Godfather III is, by a very wide critical consensus, not in the same league as The Godfather I or the Godfather II. But the reasons are quite revealing. The Godfather II ended in 1955. 25 years later, at the dawn of the Reagan era, neoliberalism is triumphant. Michael Corleone is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. His daughter, like so many children of oligarchs, is appointed to run a “non-profit,” the Michael Corleone foundation. The Corleones are now so powerful, that, in addition to the humble immigrants and small businessmen of the fist two movies, their supplicants now include archbishops and real estate magnets. But, while history seems to have born out Coppola’s speculations about the assassination of Pope John Paul I, The Godfather III as a whole is just silly. While Coppola dramatized the birth of the neoliberal, oligarchic world order in the first two films, he doesn’t have the tools or the imagination to depict the ongoing neoliberal world order. Instead of finely wrought family drama, we have over the top, cartoonish violence, run away conspiracy theories, dialog that explains instead of dramatizes, and juxtapositions too obvious to convince.
The Godfather III is a mess, but, to its credit, at least it tries. Filmmakers, from Brian DePalma in Scarface to Scorsese in Goodfelllas, to Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad, have been far more limited in their ambitions. There are good movies dramatizing street level criminals, bad movies dramatizing criminals as oligarchs, and TV shows like Breaking Bad that are combinations of both. What is Game of Thrones but the Godfather with the perversity and violence ratcheted up? But nobody has quite managed to make a film that, like The Godfather II, combines effective drama with the sweep of history and a subtle understand of American politics. Perhaps the very neoliberalism that triumphed in the 1970s has made that impossible.