Historically, the family is one of the most common metaphors for political power. Kings presented themselves as fathers of their people, and philosophers as august as Aristotle have suggested that political rule is an outgrowth of, and related to, the rule of the family. As a way to cover over and soften the harsh realities of power, few images are as beguiling as the loving hand of a father defending and guiding his “family”—a community tightly bonded by a shared way of life.
This combination of political power and familial love creates a majestic and pleasing image, but one that inevitably cracks when the necessities of the former clash with the limitations that attend any genuine concern for the latter. By conceiving of himself as a father of his country, a king may generate affection for them, but the unforgiving demands of the law, the constant impulse to maximize power, and especially the necessities of war inevitably reveal the limits and tensions of the metaphor. This dynamic, and all the beauty and destruction that come along with it, is captured by the greatest set of films Hollywood has produced, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.
The Godfather and its sequels are not what most would consider political films. Much of their enduring attraction and value, however, comes from the drama attendant upon the governance of a closed, traditional society—part family, part business, part kingdom—contrasted with a corrupt America and the paper-thin society that characterizes it. This alternative society seems to be built on more solid foundations—a shared culture, mutual bonds of genuine loyalty, and a universally accepted hierarchy.
But in building the Corleone Family into a national and eventually global power, Vito and (especially) Michael Corleone end up destroying the very things that make it so attractive, not least of all, the actual flesh-and-blood family.
“For Justice, We Must Go to Don Corleone”
The first film’s iconic opening scene draws a powerful distinction between two alternative societies. A man whose very name pays homage to America’s promise has come to see it all as an illusion. Amerigo Bonasera made an American life for himself and his family; he raised his daughter in “the American fashion,” meaning autonomy in her personal choices and the diminishment of traditional restraints; and he expects that America will take care of them.
When his daughter is beaten after an attempted rape by her (non-Italian) boyfriend and another boy, Bonasera expects justice. But his illusions are shattered: A judge, likely bribed, suspends the two boys’ sentences.
This kind of corruption seems to define the broader American society throughout the films. Police, priests, senators, judges—the pezzonovante, or “big shots”—pull the strings, and everything in their world is bought and sold. There is no honesty, no loyalty, no love of neighbor. The law is cold and distant—and therefore easily corruptible. Bonasera was a stranger to the bribed judge, who could as easily cast aside his claim to justice as he could swat a fly.
In contrast to this debauched society, we see the Corleone “Family”—the extended network of blood relations, friends, and (onetime) neighbors who have bound themselves together by pledging their loyalty to their (actual or metaphorical) “godfather.” Genuine justice is possible here, because it is bound up in real fraternity. Don Vito is open to carrying out the justice the court system had denied, but he is interested in a relationship, not a transaction. Nothing is more insulting than Bonasera’s attempt to entice him: “How much shall I pay you?”
In Part II’s flashbacks, we see that the virtues of the Corleone Family grow out of Vito’s sense of justice and care for his family, community, and culture (supported, of course, by brutal violence to those outside of his circle whenever necessary). Vito’s rise was enabled only partly by the shrewd, Machiavellian criminality he would pass on to his second son. He never had any desire to be another Don Ciccio (the brutal Sicilian boss who murdered his family back in Corlenone) or Don Fanucci (who ran a protection racket on the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen). He is a far more virtuous man, which allows him to rise above their petty tyranny and earn the love of those around him. He cares about the justice of his actions. He helps the oppressed and does not go out of his way to harm those who leave him and his friends alone. He keeps the Family’s illegal business to “harmless vices” like gambling and alcohol, hoping to avoid involvement in hard drugs (for both ethical and practical reasons). He holds fast to tradition, building his personal influence around the religious role of godfather, teaching his sons (mostly in vain) to love their wives and children, and maintaining Sicilian cultural practices.
And his virtues sometimes seem to rub off on those around him, as we see in cases of minor characters like Enzo Aguello, a baker for whom Vito had used his influence in government to help gain legal status in America. Arriving at the hospital with flowers for Vito after he had been shot, the terrified young man stays to help protect his benefactor from assassins even after Michael tells him to leave. This is the sort of thick social bond that seems so lacking in the American alternative and that makes the Corleone Family so attractive.
Vito is convinced that a good life—with the cultural, ethical, and familial treasures that he values—is only possible in America if you fight unflinchingly for it and defend it with all your might. The government is indifferent; powerful predatory men dominate society, capable of manipulating and controlling the honest ones. Vito is not content to lurk in the shadows and try to cobble together the best life he can. To defend his robust understanding of the good life, he must build up his own power and use it to defeat those who would challenge him. This fighting spirit premises the tragedy of the story, that Michael—the only man who would truly stop at nothing to defend the Family—was responsible for its destruction.
“By Being Strong for His Family, Could He Lose It?”
In Part I, we see the fully developed Corleone Family, which has now become a collective—a business and crime entity that conceptually stands on its own, distinct from the relationships that make it up. It is, with a capital-f, The Family.
What once seemed to emerge organically from the personal relationships of family and community now mostly operates on the basis of a friend-enemy distinction, as the organization expanded beyond the Don’s personal orbit. Despite his hesitancy and transactional attitude, for instance, Bonasera’s simple declaration of friendship, rather than a demonstrated life of friendship brings him into the fold. Tradition, culture, and personal bonds still permeate the institution and help hold it together. But the need to be shrewdly focused on power and the strength of the collective means such things are always on the verge of being instrumentalized. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that only Vito’s personal character and commitment to them preserved the old ways in the face of necessity.
Even he could not prevent the logic of power from starting to erode the thick society he loved: He and his family, for instance, no longer live in Manhattan, having moved into an isolated, well-defended compound on Long Island. Like other Americans, they have started to commute to work. And throughout the first film, Vito would become more and more aware of the tension between the interests of The Family and the lives and relationships of his friends and his flesh and blood, culminating in the gruesome assassination of Sonny that would prompt Vito immediately to turn to that “low but solid” law—seek peace.
There are early hints that Michael never quite understood or appreciated what made his father distinctive. In defending his new role in the family business to Kay, he does not argue that Vito must use unsavory means in order to perpetuate and defend something valuable—that he’s something better than the average slimy politician and CEO. Rather, he defends him precisely by equating him to the American powerbroker: “My father’s no different from any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or president.”
And like those “other powerful [men]”—but unlike his father—Michael was singlemindedly focused on the power and interests of the Family. Even more than his father, Michael wields power masterfully—the perfect combination of Machiavellian lion and fox. And his most successful stratagem was to make The Family more American. Michael’s Army uniform at the beginning of the first film not only marked him as separate from the rest of the family; it also was a symbol of the power of the American way of life, something he never forgot. Across the first two films, it is impossible to miss the evolution away from its roots and its eventual integration into American culture. But it’s not a mindless drift. Michael consciously and systematically abandons the old ways, which he understands are strategic weaknesses when operating on the scale that they are. Indeed, this seems to be what Michael really means when he talks about making The Family “legitimate”—not that its operations are all legal, but that it is seen as a respectable part of American life.
First, he further estranges the Family from its old Manhattan communities by doing what all enterprising Americans had done: moving west, where more money is to be made, where there is breathing room from the other New York families, and there is more powerful political influence to be found. This ultimately means abandoning the places Vito had built his empire. In the background of the second and third films we see the slide of the old neighborhoods back into the hands of petty tyrants—the Rosato Brothers in Part II and Joey Zasa in Part III—only this time the Corleone family backs the thugs. Overlooking their depredations is necessary for the success of the “big deals” that Michael is focused on.
Second, Michael makes the family more accessible to powerful Americans by letting its cultural distinctiveness go. The first communion party at the beginning of Part II invites comparisons to the wedding feast at the beginning of the first installment. Italian music, food, and speech are gone. It is aimed at influential outsiders, rather than family. And while at the wedding, Sonny spat in the presence of a prying FBI agent; now law enforcement is welcomed in and served drinks and hors d’oeuvres. This has made The Family more open to people like Sen. Pat Geary, the party’s special guest, and prospective political pawn.
Finally, Michael abandons family itself. Most notably, friends of the family, and even family members, wait in line “like everybody else” to see Michael at the party. While Vito had attempted to make The Family after the image of his biological family, Michael values his family members based on their contributions to the collective. Like the American society they once shunned, loyalty has become transactional for the Corleone Family.
Michael recognizes that he is losing his actual family, but can’t see his own role in it. He continues to expect the kind of paternal reverence that the old ways cultivated. He expects his sister Connie to ask his permission for marriage; he appeals to traditional gender roles in his attempt to control Kay. But he doesn’t see that the respect and love the family had for Vito came from his role as a genuine patriarch, not his role as ruler of the empire.
The fog that covers Michael’s understanding is captured in a heartfelt conversation with his elderly mother, in which he can hardly come up with the words to ask the question:
What did Papa think…deep in his heart? He was being strong…Strong for his family. But by being strong for his family…could he…lose it?
“You can never lose your family,” his Mama reassures him, not really understanding his question. “Times are changing,” Michael concludes, seemingly pinning family deterioration on some impersonal force.
“I Never Wanted This for You”
Conservative thinker and sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that the metaphor of family for political power was most remarkable because political power actually has its origins in something utterly opposed to the ethic of the parent: the war chief. Try as one might to cover over political power with familial rhetoric, the demands of politics and power on a grand scale will always pivot toward war.
In their own minds, both Vito and Michael combined the roles of patriarch and war chief, and thus both of them actually rejected the distinction between “business and personal” that comes up again and again throughout the films. But each was ultimately attached more to one part of their role than the other—and each was eventually forced to choose between them. Vito thought of his chiefly role as an outgrowth of his role as patriarch of his biological family and his role as neighbor and friend. In Part III, an older and reflective Michael would recognize this as one of the key differences between himself and his father, who liked to do things “by himself, man to man.”
Michael never knew his father as anything other than a war chief. And the lesson he learned from Vito was that nothing can be safe unless defended with every ounce of effort one can muster. He therefore embraced his role as war chief as primary, believing there would be nothing left to defend if he did not make the effective exercise of power more important than anything else.
Two parallel scenes capture this difference in approach: When Sonny speaks out of turn during a meeting with drug kingpin Virgil Sollozzo, Vito sees the incident—which ends up having disastrous consequences for The Family—as one that primarily requires paternal instruction and guidance. He even blends his rebuke with a lesson for his son’s personal life: “I have a sentimental weakness for my children…They talk when they should listen.” He later chastens Sonny, “I think your brain is going soft from all that comedy you’re playing with that young girl. Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”
Faced with a similar outburst from Fredo during a meeting with casino magnate Moe Greene, Michael’s response is an ominous warning: “Fredo, you’re my older brother and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again.” With the but, Michael sharply divides his role as a brother from his role as head of The Family. And it’s clear which is more important. Flesh and blood must always give way to the demands of power.
Accordingly, Michael’s relationship with his family members comes to be shaped by their political roles in The Family. While Vito taught his children that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” Michael comes to have almost no relationship with his children, having Tom Hagen buy them Christmas presents for him, and only displaying the slightest affection when he thinks fondly that “one day,” Anthony will help him with the Family business. When Kay confronts him about Anthony’s developmental problems, Michael drowns her out: “I don’t want to hear about it!”
Fredo’s fate is but the culmination of Michael’s utter subordination of fraternity to power. Once Fredo undermined the interests of The Family—even though Michael knew it was not out of intentional treachery but because he was “weak and stupid”—it meant that he must be excised entirely from Michael’s life: “You’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend. I don’t want to know you or what you do.” And of course, even that banishment is not enough. Michael takes no pleasure in what he does to Fredo, but there is never any doubt that he will do it.
Michael therefore winds up defending and fighting for an abstraction. He knows the stakes, and he can proudly declare that he has won every war, defeated every enemy. Something called the Corleone Family is always triumphant. But it is a shell of what he inherited, “no different from any large corporation,” as we hear in Part III.
Though he would continue to defend his choices, Vito sensed that his life had not worked out as planned. In his wistful conversation with Michael near the end of the first film, he “won’t apologize” for always doing what he thought was necessary to “take care of my family.” He would not “play the fool dancing on the string held by those big shots.” But his demeanor reveals a man who—beaten down by the events of the recent past—realizes how much has gone wrong; what still seems so reasonable to him was always doomed to fail. He had thought that if he could just exert enough power, carry out just the right strategy, win enough battles, he could entirely control events: that Michael would eventually “be the one holding the strings.” But there would never be enough time for that.
“We’ll get there, Pop”: Michael sees his father’s failure, but doubles down on his belief that he can control the world with enough time, enough calculation, and enough power. Not until Part III does Michael—presented finally as a man rather than a warrior-king—face the same lesson Vito had, perhaps unconsciously, learned: that no matter how a man labors, all returns to dust.
When Vito died, The Family was in a precarious position, forced to leave New York, with defectors actively plotting against the heir. But he died the best death he could ask for: At his home, playing a fool with his grandson.
We don’t know the status of the Corleone Family at Michael’s death, but we do know that he successfully plotted the takeover of one of the largest companies in the world in Part III. And we also know that he died utterly alone, tortured by the memories of the family he destroyed.