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The Most Powerful Man In America: The Godfather At 50
Sam Moore , March 30th, 2022 09:12

The worlds of the Mafia and American politics are inseparable – and Francis Ford Coppola knew this when making The Godfather 50 years ago, with crime poisoning every echelon of society, finds Sam Moore

The worlds of the Mafia and American politics are inseparable. The 20th century was when America came to replace Britain as the world’s superpower and grafted a system built on the violence it overthrew. Moral conservatism, in terms of attitudes towards vice and substances and sex, were the building blocks of the American Mafia because the government (and indeed society) winced at liquor and girls and gambling. Prohibition turned hustlers into kings. The likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky became industrialists with the power and influence of Rockefeller and Carnegie. They bought politicians and rewrote laws, and the gangland and government were two halves of the same raging machine.

Backroom bribery, shadowy deals made within the mist of smoke, money tainted by murder, compliance through violence and lies of strength and safety. The Mafia and the government are the same monster, the system keeps them both powerful and well fed, capital their king. The ordinary – should they exist – can’t escape complicity. We know how much a dollar costs, and it’s everything.

As the Mafia found its power and the government denied such a thing as Cosa Nostra even existed (just as made mob men do through the code of silence), Hollywood began to mine the deliciousness of suited Mafioso wielding influence and weapons into salacious stories lapped up by a public enraptured by real life outlaws such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Ever since the earliest days of studio cinema, Hollywood has loved using gangsters as parables for the rise and rise of the global superpower – often much to the fury of many Italian-Americans, who felt stereotyped as crooks.

Francis Ford Coppola, who at first dismissed Mario Puzo’s The Godfather novel as “cheap”, on a second read through understood what the book, set in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, captured – a society richer than ever been before, transformed but systematically unharmed from war with capitalism at its zenith; and all of this allowing for the shadow power of the Mafia to control much of society’s public institutions, whether that be the police, politicians or the media. While the book had gotten the public hooked on lurid violence, Sonny Corleone’s large appendage and sleazy sex, the Italian-speaking Coppola honed in on the key to everything: power.

While the book is set in the post-war Eisenhower years, Puzo and Coppola wrote The Godfather when the Kennedys were the most famous family in America. Headed by bootlegging baron and Wall Street maverick Joe Kennedy, who had links to Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, the Kennedys were the Borgias of their age – ubiquitous, dynastic and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of power. Kennedy sired two sons – John and Robert – who would go right to the top of American politics and mix in a blend of gangsters and celebrities before meeting traumatic ends by the end of the 1960s, still young men not yet 50.

The Kennedy boys were close in age and ambition while, much like Michael and Sonny in The Godfather, divergent in personality. Robert was the idealist, stoic to a fault but furiously bold in his vision to remake America in his righteous image. John was the chronically ill rogue yet a war hero and as James Ellroy aptly observed “the president of pussy”. The two men, with their liberal politics and grotesquely public deaths, came to define the hope and ultimately the desolation of the 1960s.Their lives, and particularly in the case of JFK’s death, are intrinsically intertwined with the Mafia. JFK would have never ascended to the throne without the support of Frank Sinatra (who also appears in The Godfather in the form of Johnny Fontane) and allegedly, the mob’s support in Chicago. In return, he was allegedly supposed to ease the pressure on the Mafia families and also bring Cuba back under American control (the mob owned most of the casinos and hotels in Havana before the Cuban Revolution). This did not happen, and the fiercely anti-crime Robert was let loose on the Mafia in his role as Attorney General, prosecuting the thought untouchable Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. John would die on 22 November 1963, shot once in the head and once in the back. Mafia involvement has been speculated in the half-century since. The President wasn’t the most powerful man in America.

Coppola would admit many years later that he drew on the Kennedy empire when forging his Corleones. The violence, the betrayal, the guilt – they were the operatic themes drawn out of Puzo’s pulpy text and that haunt every frame of The Godfather. Murmured words and throwaway lines suggest the Corleones and the other crime families own large swathes of the press. The sole policeman in the story is a mob bodyguard for hire. Everyday businesses – bakeries, funeral parlours, restaurants – cannot exist without mob support, protection or money. In capitalism, everything is for sale and everybody’s selling.

“It was only business” is Corleone capo Sal Tessio’s final line before his murder for betraying new don Michael to a rival family. Killing your brother-in-law is business. Cutting off a horse’s head is business. It’s the cold hard competition of capitalism in its purest form – the type America and its behemothic corporations had been spreading around the globe. It was never personal when a government was overthrown or a small business was bankrupted or labour value driven down. It was only business.

The Godfather understood structural decline and how it glued the very fabric of society into a completed blanket. In the film’s now iconic opening scene, where Don Vito accepts requests for help on his daughter’s wedding day, an honest man, an Italian immigrant, goes to the gangster after the American justice system has failed a sexually assaulted woman, as it so often does. It’s never shown what happens to the rapists, but it’s a lot more than the free pass they received from the courts. And such is the American paradox, as the legal world crumbles from corruption and prejudice, always weighed in the favour of the powerful, the innocent resort to criminal means for justice, the type of justice that can be bought with favours that must always be returned.

It also emphasises the corruption of the individual by the system. The Godfather is about Michael Corleone’s descent into the underworld – how the war hero and good college boy raptured a nightmare of violence so widespread and so devastating even family could not be saved. “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed,” argues Michael’s future wife Kay early in the film as the youngest Corleone attempts to justify his joining of the family business. “Oh who’s being naive, Kay?” is his reply. Later on, a grandiose montage of murder flashes with scenes of baptism. No enemies, no opposition, no threats remain. The absolute consolidation of power is what every leader dreams of.

As the door closes at the end of The Godfather and Michael is crowned king, a corpse of the war hero from the beginning of the film, it’s clear all moral direction has been poisoned by pain and revenge, that power only exists on the shoulders of violence. It’s the story of America. It’s the story of history.