Forty years ago, on March 14, The Godfather premiered in New York City. The two hour film began what would become a veritable epic about a world-weary don and his favored son, both of whom try to hold their families together in a turbulent world ripe with war, politics, power struggles, and resentment. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather is arguably one of the top five movies in cinema history. However, some films are lauded for their greatness at the time and deemed “classics,” but fall short of reaching a contemporary audience. After forty years, we take a look at if and why The Godfather is still relevant in the twenty-first century.
Question 1: After 40 years, The Godfather continuously appears toward the top of “best-of-all-time” lists — it currently ranks number 2 on AFI’s “100 Years 100 Movies List.” After so many years and so many mob-movie incarnations, does Coppola’s film deserve such lauding?
Tim Adkins: Yes. Never mind exactly what number it’s ranked, The Godfather should always stand as one of the finest achievements in the history of filmmaking. The production was, at times, a disaster. Despite that, one of the most gifted storytellers of the 20th century (Coppola) presided over outstanding performances from three of cinema’s finest actors (Brando, Pacino and Duvall) working from a screenplay that featured an almost uncountable number of classic plot points, subordinate characters and one-liners that remain as cultural icons. As if that weren’t enough, Gordon Willis essentially perfected the art of using darkness to illuminate a story–a feat that changed the way people thought about cinematography from that point forward. It’s impossible to imagine a conversation about the history of cinema and its greatest masterworks without including The Godfather.
Steve Barker: Yes. It sparked a whole genre of film. With the exception of Goodfellas nothing has been nearly as good. I think it should hold the number one spot. Citizen Kane and Casablanca are both great films, but their grasp on pop culture has dwindled over the years. More of today’s teenagers have seen The Godfather than Citizen Kane and Casablanca combined. I know a lot of viewings does not necessarily mean a movie is good, but The Godfather sells DVDs like The Beatles sell CDs. Citizen Kane sells DVDs like Beethoven sells CDs, and Beethoven never makes the “Best 100 Musicians of All Time” list.
Jared Wade: Of course. Depending on how you feel about Casablanca, it’s either the greatest or second greatest film ever made. From the story and the script to the cast and the direction, it’s a flawless piece of art. The apex of cinema.
Jeff Garcia: Of course. This is a movie which stands the test of time. A lot of these themes still resonate with people today. The pursuit of power, money, and respect just show how the years may have passed, but Coppola’s ability to show the best and worst of people was ahead of its time.
Dustin Freeley: It does, but not because the movie itself remains amazing or is shrouded in a cloud of “classic” rhetoric like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Don’t get me wrong; both have their place in classic cinema, but for reasons that differ from The Godfather. Kane is a cinematic masterpiece in regards to camera technique and depth of field – something that is less recognized today because of technological innovation. Honestly, I’ve never really been sold on Casablanca, but it has its moments. However, The Godfather deserves praise for the impact it has had on cinema in general – and the mob genre in particular. Without The Godfather, we may never have found a solid interest in The Sopranos. Tony and Vito share some physical similarities, and not by coincidence. Moreover, Scorsese’s classics owe their inspiration to films like The Godfather. And, what would the world be like without the mockery that is Mob Wives?
Question 2: Vito Corleone is the only character in cinema history to garner two Academy Awards for two separate actors. Who plays him better?
Tim Adkins: Brando. By the slimmest of margins. If you ask me tomorrow, I may say the opposite.
Steve Barker: That’s like asking if I love my mom or my dad better. I’ll say De Niro today. If you ask me tomorrow I might say Brando.
Jared Wade: Brando. Robert De Niro does a wonderful job, but the rise of Vito is just not quite as compelling as the mob overlord incarnation that we see in Part I. The way we see Vito run the show and then fade away into retirement, a phase of life during which he is finally able to enjoy himself, is just a wonderful means to humanize the Godfather and just further cements the inhumanity of his son Michael.
Jeff Garcia: Marlon Brando. I am a purist and feel he set the tone for the character. Cool, calm, collected. From his line “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to how he gave the character an ominous presence, Brando just gave Vito life and the foundation for De Niro to work from.
Dustin Freeley: Before I watched Part I and II again last week, I would have said Brando, hands down, because he was the original and De Niro was playing a character whose persona was already defined, but, after, I changed my mind because the characters are more disparate than they appear. Both incarnations are truly Vito, but Brando is the world-weary don whereas De Niro is the aspiring entrepreneur who deals in the currency of favors. That said, I’ll still side with Brando because it is his character through which we ultimately admire, judge, and condemn Michael, a man battling his own ghosts in a changing world. However, De Niro’s performance might make Michael’s fall even more precipitous.
Question 3: In a film replete with classic scenes, which one is the most memorable and why?
Tim Adkins: This is a damn near impossible question to think about. I go with the scene where the Don and young Michael are sitting in the garden discussing strategy for how to ferret out (and deal with) the person responsible for the attempted hit on the Don. They are father and son. They are also general and lieutenant. The way they discuss their family’s business is so coldly rational and lacking in any sense of morality that they reveal themselves as men who have made peace with their life’s choices and are focused only on conducting business. The Don, at the end of his working life, collaborates with his most favored child in a manner he never desired to, but had to know was inevitable. The professional path for young Michael is finally clear and he shows no regret for having abandoned any of his former ambitions. The exchange is bittersweet and quietly savage. And the scene is thick with the poetry that makes the Godfather films so devastatingly beautiful.
Steve Barker: Every time I piss into high grass I expect to hear a gun shot. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
Jared Wade: The Barzini meeting. It is the moment, both literally and metaphorically, when Michael Corleone loses his innocence. He was a war hero who was supposed to walk the righteous path that his father was, in his mind, forced off of to support his family and defend his community. Vito never wanted Michael to fall down the same trap of immorality and crime that he did. But when Michael enters that bathroom and exits to murder two men in cold blood, his former life is forever over.
Jeff Garcia: I’m partial to the scene when Michael Corleone becomes the Godfather of his nephew as well as ascending to the position of Godfather over the rival families. It was the culmination of what the character wanted and now we are to see his rise to power and subsequent fall.
Dustin Freeley: The opening scene of The Godfather finds Vito in his office. In the dark, he listens to all pleas for assistance as a party rages outside, but there’s a sense of benevolence in his actions. Unable to “refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day,” Vito abides tradition but wants to dance with Connie. The final scene mirrors this with ominousness. Tessio’s betrayal has been avenged and no penance will be handed out “for old time’s sake.” Carlo is getting fitted for a ligature as he’s driven down the road with his feet thrashing through the windshield, and Michael assumes the reigns as his father’s doppelgänger. There are no apologies; there is no sympathy; there is no remorse, and Michael closes the door on Kay, a culmination of personality that differentiates him and Vito.
Bonus question: Two years from now marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Godfather II, so let’s get a jump on the inevitable question: Which one is better?
Tim Adkins: Part II. As much as I appreciate the first Godfather, I’ve always favored the sequel. The first is really a simple tale of a family in transition that happens to be a notable criminal enterprise. The second is much, much more ambitious. Juxtaposing the rise of that family/criminal enterprise with the struggle it faced in keeping itself together while scaling up and legitimizing itself is a daunting task. To follow the first film in that way and to hold the level of brilliance is improbable and even a little bit asinine. But that’s exactly what Coppola and company did with Part II.
Steve Barker: For me it’s always whichever one I’ve seen most recently. Today my answer is part two.
Jared Wade: Part I. They’re both great and should really just be considered one six-hour story, but if I have to choose, I have to choose the first one. While Michael Corleone’s foray into the casino business in Part II is fascinating in its own right — and culminates his downfall — it can’t quite equal the old school New York mob tale depicted in Part I.
Dustin Freeley: Both are amazing, but I’ve got to give the edge to Part II. The first film is a fine mob tale with allusions to family and friendships. Part II takes this look at family and friendship and contemporizes it through the lens of revolution and capitalism. The Anna Karenina-style X-narrative is classic in regards to Michael and Vito, but Michael’s mirroring of the ousted Batista (and ultimately Don Ciccio) and Vito’s mirroring of the rebels is a sardonic look at success and revolution. Moreover, the family that Vito worked so hard to support and keep together becomes disjointed because of internal greed. Sure, we could point the finger at Michael here, but Fredo acted first because he was jaded, resentful, and “passed over.” The genius of Part II is Michael’s vilification by the same M.O employed by his father as well as the global indictments limned through the narrative.