I’ve become fascinated with stories of regular people becoming extraordinarily bad ones. I’m not talking about the “fairy tales from a villain’s perspective” story that have become a bit of a thing; I’m talking about stories like Breaking Bad, that take a beaten-down high-school chemistry teacher, gives him a cancer diagnosis and an undiscovered streak of hubris, and watches him explode into a brief, shining star of a meth kingpin. These stories speak to the capacity for evil within us all, and remind us that all it takes are a few wrong choices and circumstances to turn us into nasty people.
I’d like to think that a lot of our preoccupation with the anti-hero in modern pop culture can be traced back to The Godfather, one of those cultural touchstones that everyone knows about it even if they haven’t seen it. Michael Corleone blazed the trail for Walter White in a lot of ways, starting out as a Marine and outsider of the Family and ending up ruthlessly seizing control of the organized crime scene. This movie shows us how he got there — through the continual threat to himself and his family.
But it’s not just the threat to the Corleone Family that molds Michael into the man he eventually becomes, and it’s not just being threatened that makes monsters out of any man. It’s the nature of the threat and the ultimate way we decide to deal with it. Sitting in on Mafia meetings, Michael soon learns that the confrontation they’re in is one of those that will only end in someone’s demise. Once it’s been reduced to an “us vs. them” scenario, survival becomes the only thing that matters. And Michael and everyone around him will try to do that at any cost.
What makes Michael’s journey from Marine to mob boss so compelling is that he does these horrible things for fairly understandable reasons. There’s a genuine love for his family within him, even knowing who they are and what they do. When they’re threatened he doesn’t retaliate out of malice or a spirit of vengeance — it’s merely the most expedient way to eliminate a mortal threat.
Perhaps it’s because he’s a military man that Michael proves to be so good at strategizing the Corleone family’s escape from complete ruin. A ruthlessly tactical mind reveals itself in the face of this adversity, and he’s all too happy to use it to not only save their place at the table, but grab a better one when the opportunity presents itself.
Who doesn’t love the discovery of a hidden talent? I’m not sure what Michael’s prospects would have been if he hadn’t gotten involved, but chances are quite good that he wouldn’t have been nearly as feared or respected doing anything else. That combination of regard and wariness that is afforded to the very powerful is a heady temptation; it’s no wonder that he fell under its spell.
Of course, the movie does an incredible job of stitching an epic out of a number of low-key moments. It’s grounded in the realism of 70s cinema, and that makes the iconic scenes feel natural and lived-in. There’s a reason that so many people in organized crime (apparently) idolize this movie — there’s a reason the folks on, say, The Sopranos quote and reference it as religiously as the Bible. It’s a romanticized look at an awful profession, grounded just enough that anyone can insert themselves into Michael’s shoes.
The cinematography, the direction, the acting — all of it’s perfectly placed. It serves as a template for just about every mob movie or series that comes after it. The importance of this movie to the cultural landscape simply can’t be understated. You can’t touch the legacy of The Godfather.
But for me, it keeps coming back to Michael Corleone and the fact that he was doomed to sink towards his worst impulses the moment he stepped into his sister’s wedding. Even though The Godfather takes great pains to paint the Corleone family as the “good” bad guys, they’re still unquestionably bad — and it’s important to note that Michael’s fall is a tragedy to be pitied, not an arc to emulate.