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The Godfather Analysis


I've put together this analysis of The Godfather, considered one of the greatest movies ever made, as a bonus gift for December.   As usual, I have laid out why this movie works through the lens of what I believe are the four pillars of great storytelling:  Literal & Emotional question, Point of View, Joseph Campbell's Monomyth and Aristotle's Cause-and-Effect Structure.  I hope you enjoy diving into the intricate details of The Godfather and its greatness as much as I did! 


The Godfather Analysis:

Literal Question: Will Don Corleone keep his power; can the Corleone family stay on top?


Emotional question: Will Michael take his father’s place as the head of the family and

become the new “Don Corleone”?

Both the literal and emotional question are at stake in every scene of this movie.


Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth:

(Campbell describes 17 stages of the monomyth or the hero's journey, a common

template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a

decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed. Not all monomyths

necessarily contain all 17 stages explicitly; some myths may focus on only one of the

stages, while others may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order.)



Ordinary world:

Connie’s wedding offers up a microcosm of The Don and Michael’s ordinary world. Don

Corleone is a benevolent, powerful man in the community, who people fear and/or respect. He has a code that he reveals to his loyal adopted son and lawyer Tom Hagen: “we don’t murder people”. Michael Corleone is a hero soldier home from the war who wants nothing to do with the family business. They live in opulence and are being surveilled by the feds. They are surrounded by people who are staunchly loyal either out of love or fear and people who are against them and want to betray them. Michael is Don Corleone’s favorite son. Fredo, the first born son is drunk at the wedding, signifying his weakness (and establishing he could never be

the one to take the Don’s place in the family line) and the second born, Santino “Sonny” is a wild card which makes the Corleone family hierarchy unstable.


In this ordinary world, The Don will do anything he has to do to establish his power and get what he wants. Michael tells us this in the story he conveys to his girlfriend Kay, a non Italian, anglo woman from New England (highlighting Michael’s rejection of his Italian roots and the family business) in the line: “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”.


We see The Don’s power firsthand, when he sends Tom Hagen to Los Angeles to settle a

problem. When Tom is unable to negotiate in a civilized way, The Don arranges the beheading

of a beautiful prize stallion (a symbol of wealth in America). This whole Los Angeles sequence

is in the movie to establish that in this ordinary world, Don Corleone gets what he wants by any means necessary (note: but not by murdering people, the threat of murder is enough)


Call to Adventure:

Virgil Solozzo is new in town. He’s a heroin dealer from Turkey. He calls for a business meeting with Don Corleone to establish a working relationship for smuggling and distributing heroin in

New York. The Corleone family has never dealt drugs before. This is new, dangerous territory.



Refusal of the call:

Michael goes back to his life with Kay, away from his family and his father’s business.

Don Corleone takes the meeting with Solozzo but turns him down. Sonny, showing his raw

unbridled emotion, shows his cards that he’s invested in Solozzo’s idea enough to be angry that their rivals, the Tattaglia family is backing Solozzo. But Don Corleone admonishes Sonny.


Solozzo picks up on this. (INCITING INCIDENT)

In private, Don Corleone reprimands Sonny (our unworthy heir) and sets the wheels of the plot in motion by sending Luca Brazi out to meet with the adversary family The Tattaglia’s to find out what their deal with Solozzo is.



ARISTOTLE’S CAUSE AND EFFECT - Direct consequence of the refusal:

Because Sonny showed his hand (that he was “hot for Solozzo’s deal”) Solozzo makes his

move to remove the obstacle in his way-The Don who is from the old world of tame gambling,

not the new world of heroin and all of its possibilities.

- He kills Don Corleone’s most feared ally Luca Brazi

- He tries to kill Don Corleone

- Thinking he’s succeeded, he kidnaps Tom Hagen and tells him he knows Sonny was hot for

his deal, tells Tom to persuade Sonny to work with him.

- Sonny and Tom figure out that Paulie, The Don’s driver called in sick the day their father was

shot which means he sold him out and left him with no bodyguard. Clemenza and another

one of Don Corleone’s henchmen make Paulie pay for it with his life which is just a part of the

family business. It’s not personal (note: the casual line “Leave the gun” is a line that was

written because the story point that needed to be conveyed is that this is just business for

Clemenza, it’s not personal-the crucial tenet of mafia life, the tenet that Michael will later take

to an extreme and turn him into the monster he eventually becomes. When Richard

Castellano improvised “take the cannoli’s” it was a perfect moment of solidarity proving that everyone organically knew what this moment was about…. It's iconic because in one line it tells you everything you need to know about Clemenza, mafia life and foreshadows the downfall of their family: not making this business personal.)

- Michael gets the news that his father is near death. He goes home.

- The Corleone family goes into hiding together.


Meeting with the Mentor:

Clemenza teaches Michael how to make “the sauce”. While this may seem like a benign

moment, this is Michael being lovingly shown who his family really is… the secret ingredients of the sauce that only Clemenza knows, the kitchen being the heart of the Italian family… this IS who he is.



Crossing the threshold:

Michael tells Kay he won’t be able to see her again, goes to his father’s side in the hospital and tells him: ”I’m with you now.”

End of Act One.



THE NEW WORLD: TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES (first half of Act Two)

(To get from page ~30-60 give your hero/heroes at least three difficult tests that they fail

or pass, to push them on their journey forward accumulating allies and enemies with

each test.)


Test one:

Michael finds his father alone, the police sent the bodyguards away. Michael is smart enough to

realize that the police are bought out by Solozzo. What does he do about it? He passes his test and protects his father.


Consequence of the first test: Michael gets beat up by his first new ENEMY, police chief

MCCLUSKEY. Because Michael was smart to call home immediately to notify them that the cops left his father alone, his ALLY Tom Hagen shows up to aide him.


BECAUSE of the hit on Don Corleone, Sonny is acting Boss now and because he is an unworthy heir, he deepens the family’s troubles by attacking the adversary Tattaglia family and killing Bruno Tattaglia. This is also Don Corleone’s family’s foray into the new world - committing murder. Something he never wanted to resort to. The Corleone family is now in an all out war with the Tattaglia family. More ALLIES are at the Corleone compound to protect them but we also get a better look at the Shapeshifter TESSIO who later turns on The Corleone family which again was “just business”.


Test Two:

Solozzo wants another meeting with the Corleone family but this time he wants to meet with the “civilian” - Michael, the war hero. Acting boss Sonny doesn’t want a meeting, he wants Solozzo dead. Once again, putting his emotions before business, he’s “making it personal” and Tom Hagen points this out. Because there is no true leader in the family with Don Corleone near

death in the hospital, Sonny and Tom argue heatedly. Tom Hagen presents the real PROBLEM: Solozzo is guarded by Police Chief McCluskey. To gun down a policeman would be suicide, they would lose any allies they have left.


Michael steps up, reveals his supreme power: his intellect and his ability to understand that “it’s not personal. It’s just business”. His transformation from civilian war hero to the heir of Don Corleone has begun.


Michael passes his test. He is able to convince Tom and Sonny to agree to his plan.

Because he passes his test, his plan is set into motion. His mentor, Clemenza teaches him how to shoot the gun at close range, just like he taught him how to make the sauce when Michael was still in the ordinary world before he crossed the threshold.



Test Three:

At the meet, Michael follows Clemenza’s instructions and kills Solozzo and McCluskey. The irony is that Solozzo asked to meet with the “civilian” but Michael at this moment is transforming, no longer the civilian, he passes his test, leaving the civilian behind. With the rise of Michael the worthy heir, Solozzo loses the battle for power. Because Michael passes his third test he is sent into hiding in Sicily.

Don Corleone returns home from the hospital to find out the transfer of power is complete. The thing he never wanted to happen has come true, Michael’s no longer the hero soldier. He is now a murderer for the Corleone Crime Family.



MEETING WITH THE GODDESS

In this stage, the hero gains “items” given to him that will help him in the future. These items can be of the physical or emotional world. The Goddess can mean an actual woman or a feminine, healing power that aides the hero. In this case, we can consider Sicily, the village of Corleone itself the Goddess. Now that Michael has left his old self behind, he is being reborn in his homeland, absorbing the ancestry and roots he so fiercely denied (this is why he turns down Don Tomassino’s offer to drive to the village of Corleone. Michael will walk and in that long walk become himself) …


But more literally, Michael’s meeting with the Goddess is his introduction to Appolonia, an Italian beauty. His true equal. Appolonia’s gift to Michael is the transformation of his heart.

Back in New York, Sonny’s “meeting with the Goddess” is a little different. He visits his sister

and when he sees that her husband Carlo has physically abused her, he finds Carlo and beats

him up. The “gift” that Connie gives her brother is the foundation of his undoing…


once again Sonny’s emotion and temper betray him - he shows his cards.


APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE / THE ORDEAL

:

In New York, Sonny’s enemies use the love he has for his sister to lure him to his death. Don

Corleone is losing his power, he’s now lost his son. Because this is a tragic story, in the same vain of ironic reversal, Appolonia’s gift to Michael is the destruction of his heart.

In Sicily, when Appolonia is killed, Michael’s left with nothing but a cold, dead heart. Cold

enough to do what he has to do to fulfill his role in taking his father’s place… never making

anything personal.


ARISTOTLE’S CAUSE AND EFFECT - Direct consequence of The Ordeal:

- Now that Sonny’s gone the throne is open for Michael to take.

- Don Corleone calls a meeting with the heads of the five families to arrange a truce and safe

passage for Michael to return home. In this meeting Don Corleone uncovers the information that will send the story barreling forward till the very end: the dragon that needs to be slayed is not The Tattaglia family - it was the quiet guy, the one who went unseen, under the radar… It was Barzini pulling the strings “all along”. Their problems are worse than they thought.


SEIZING THE TREASURE:

Michael, his old self now totally dead, returns to NY and begins putting the pieces of his new life as head of the family together. He reclaims his old possession: Kay and introduces himself to her as the new “Michael” the one who works for his father, a man with a vision to make the

Corleone family completely legitimate… a man who needs an heir.


THE ROAD BACK:

In Don Corleone’s office, where we started our story, Michael, the new head of the Corleone

Family, isolates himself, promising his allies that he is the smartest man in the room, he doesn’t need their help and he has a plan to make moves that will fix everything, a plan that he doesn’t need to explain. They just need to listen and not take it personally.

Unbeknownst to Michael, his old allies leave this meeting as new enemies.

Michael goes to Las Vegas to secure his position in accomplishing his dream of turning the Corleone family legitimate. In doing so, he cuts ties with another ally his brother Fredo.


In a mirror of the opening our story when Don Corleone tries to barter a deal for his Godson, Michael comes to reap the reward of that favor… but first he’s got to deal with the one person standing in his way- Moe Greene. Like his father before him, he’s going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.


Don Corleone gives Michael his last confession before he dies: he didn’t want this. He failed in his quest to keep Michael from being a part of the family business.


RESSURECTION:

Michael’s plan to isolate himself as the lone King plays out flawlessly… He winds up on top with no more enemies… and with no allies left in his own family.


RETURN WITH THE BOON:

Michael is anointed the new Godfather as his subjects kiss his ring and call him “Don Corleone”.

The end.




POV:

One of the aspects of The Godfather that makes the storytelling so cohesive and satisfying is

that the POV does not belong to any one character. The story is told from the point of view of

the literal and emotional question.

Typically the rules of POV center around the characters in the movie. Even if there are five or

six different characters, we follow those character’s arcs and storylines uniformly. At first

glance, it seems like The Godfather tells a sweeping story from many different character’s

points of view. For instance, we go with Luca Brazi to meet with Solozzo, we accompany Tom

Hagen to Los Angeles… but we can’t say that Luca and Tom have their own POV in the

movie… we never go home with them, they don’t have a cathartic arc. Those scenes are there

because they are directly showing the conflict in the story of the literal question: Will Don

Corleone maintain his power in this chess match, Of course, this is masterfully intertwined with

the emotional question: will Michael step in and take the Don’s place.

This intertwining of the literal and emotional question in every single scene is what keeps us on

the edge of our seats. These are the stakes. What’s also masterfully crafted is the height of

these stakes. Don Corleone desperately wants Michael to be “better” than he is… but the

Corleone family (an entity that’s been set up as having a moral code that we care about) needs

to survive and Michael is the only one who can save it. Aristotle’s tragic reversal is that the only

way Michael can save The Corleone family is to destroy the code that gave it its value.

THEME:

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the theme in this movie. Theme is a writing tool, not a

story structuring tool. Theme helps a writer know what’s underneath the storytelling, the subtext

of a character’s dialogue, the “way” to write the movie. It also helps a director know how to

shoot the movie. It has to be acknowledged that another reason why The Godfather remains

relevant storytelling after almost 50 years is because the theme that “American Capitalism is the

destruction of everything” is the glue that holds the whole film together. The entire tragedy

begins with the five families not being happy with what they already have, what the old world

Don Corleone tries to convince them is enough. But nothing is enough for the Italians of the

new world, American Capitalism urges them to want more… to gain millions through Solozzo

and his heroin. To convince themselves that the racist caste system of America works in their favor: they are better than the people in the neighborhoods they can distribute the drugs to

(drunk on the delusion that it wouldn’t effect them because their status in the racist American

caste system is higher). In Don Corleone’s Mafia, they were never morally worse than the dirty

politicians and the bought out police force… but in his death, the birth of the Americanized Mafia

gave way to a machine that hungered for so much they eventually ate themselves. That’s the

ultimate American story.

In Sydney Lumet’s wonderful book “Making Movies”, he says the Directors’ job is to make sure

everyone’s making the same movie. In order to do that, the Director needs to know exactly

WHAT that movie is. Francis Ford Coppola knew without question that he was making a movie about the destructive powers of dirty American Capitalism and that is richly layered in every single shot, moment and line of dialogue throughout the entire film.





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