WHO GETS TO PLAY GOD? SOME THOUGHTS ON APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT
I grew up with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s iconic film of crime family life. I would recite the lines like they were the math times tables - I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse;Leave the gun, take the cannoli; It’s not personal, it’s strictly business . I loved these movies, but I didn’t really think about them. This is a family that eats well, lives in gorgeous houses, has amazing weddings and great suits. The killing and the stealing and the lying - well, those are all a part of the package. It was only a couple of years ago, at least three decades after I started watching and re-watching the Corleone Family saga, that my mind changed.
On a snowed-in weekend, I watched the entire Godfather series, re-edited by the director to run in chronological order. Going from the 1901 opening, when young Vito Corleone witnesses the terrible act that stimulates his adult revenge, to almost a century later, when Vito’s son Michael dies broken and alone, a victim of the choices that ensued from that original act of vengeance. When you watch all three Godfathers in one sitting, the moral force of the movies is absolutely clear: the surfaces may be shiny (beautiful decor, lakeside pavilions, elegant music, and fine cigars), but the heart is diseased. Watching the full sweep of Vito and Michael Corleone’s life in the space of one weekend, it’s not the weddings or the meatballs or the costumes that you remember, it’s the tragedy of a life begun in horror, traversing through retribution, and finished through violence.
The Godfather trilogy isn’t really about Italian-American crime families. It’s about power, how some people think you get it, and how some people use it. And everyone has been on at least one side of that equation. Believing that exploitative power over others is what matters in life is its own reward. But it will corrode the soul, isolate the person, destroy the family, and leave you dying inside. When looked at that way, the role The Godfather has in our shared culture is paradoxical - instead of its invitation being heard, it has become a shiny object valued more for its aesthetic pleasures than its blindingly important invitation.
Coppola followed the first two Godfather movies (and his sinister conspiracy thriller The Conversation, also about power and money), with Apocalypse Now, his film set in Vietnam and Cambodia during the U.S. military endeavor there. A notoriously challenging production, Coppola overstated “[My film] is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Coppola is a big man known for grand gestures. An appropriate response would have to include asking Vietnamese people about that - for their presence in the movie is only as victims or perpetrators; the objects of American wrath or condescension. That may be part of the point Coppola is trying to make, that the war was not exactly fought on behalf of the people of Vietnam.