Coppola's 'The Godfather' was released as a film in 1972, critics were quick to condemn the movie for engaging in a mis-portrayal of organized crime. The simulacrum, it was said, over-emphasized the violent aspects of the traditional criminal social context, one that was usually characterized by mutuality and beneficial arrangements rather than what amounted to guerilla warfare. It was said that if such a culture did exist, it would act to the common misery of its principal actors, who are characterized by intuitive behavior and self-interest. In doing so, these critics failed to acknowledge the nature of the story; one in which an idealistic protagonist (as is reflected in the fact that he is home from fighting in the Second World War) falls prey to the standards of conduct endemic to a society bereft of moral principle which must rely on the pack instinct and family loyalties in order to maintain some cogent structure.
Firstly, The Godfather is a story where the gangster comes of age in a completely normative culture, which is bereft of the principles symbolized by service in the Allied forces. This culture is so lethal and estranged from the primacy of human need that the main character is only able to survive by adopting the ethics of a counter-culture in which he can gain status and approval through participation in a disruptive turf war that destroys many of his family members. In turn, the alternative society, where he earns his rite of passage by murdering an enemy of his criminal organization, provides him with dignity and fulfillment. We see a social criticism in the repetition of memes: the young Michael Corleone first enjoys the acclaim of his country for heroism because he is willing to kill Germans, and upon returning home is expected to perform the same task for a smaller, more intuitive group of people with whom he self-identifies. A transition is made from the unseen and impersonal to the graphic and personal. Like Catch-22, The Godfather was released during the Vietnam era, when the ability of the average American to identify mutual values in a national context had been almost abandoned by a public that was quick to attribute all talk of 'duty' to the self-aggrandizing actions of a small number of self-interested individuals.
The Godfather can be seen as a reflection of common perceptions about the nature of political power. According to early 20th century political theorist Franz Oppenheimer, human beings have but two ways of surviving, either through productive labor or by appropriating the product of the labor of others by force. The first Oppenheimer called the economic means, the second, the political means. We see in the Godfather how political power is gained and implemented on the local level, where its accumulation is inextricably connected to a rise in the use of physical violence. As individuals become more powerful, they develop what we would think of as being moral deficiencies. We see this both in the inter-workings of the Corleone family and in the various characters, notably Michael and his brothers. If we follow the Oppenheimer model, the state is an institutionalization of such powers, which are regained by criminal elements where the laws implemented by the state are morally arbitrary or cause a market for sustainable human consumption. This is reflected in the Corleone family's primary function as a racketeering organization. Because the state lacks moral authority, is estranged from the citizenry, and is not reflected in the mutualistic assertion of commonly held moral standards, a system emerges whereby ostensibly illicit commercial needs (such as gambling and money laundry) are met by an organization which provides them with a degree of efficiency. When differences occur between the Corleones and another organized crime syndicate, they are presented as being fought over moral principles; the Corleones are against the sale of drugs and the Sollozzo family wishes to sell drugs all over the city of New York.
According to Gehring's Handbook of Literary Film Genres, "earlier (gangster) films implicitly demonstrated how criminal activity replicated that of legitimate business; the God-father films charted the development of a criminal business empire as it passed through free market and oligopolistic phases into a virtual monopoly, and explored correspondingly its imperialist expansionism as domestic markets became saturated or politically tenuous." (Gehring, 1988, pg. 58.) The auspice of moral authority is quickly traded for the bitterness of inter-necine conflict as members of both families and family friends are murdered. The movie culminates in the simultaneous portrayal of a baptism and the systematic elimination of the Corleone family's enemies, in a scene that presents the reader with a duo-fold portrayal of the protagonist's vitality as a patriarch, and as the commander of what is essentially a secular military organization. In many respects, Michael is presented to us as a conservative and as a patriot: he is loyal, willing to sacrifice his life for his country and his personal well being for that of his family, he is both a supreme delegator of authority and not afraid to take matters into his own hands. In short, he is a person who is both moral and circumspect, and the violence endemic to the book underscores the way that Michael's morality and ostensibly socio-pathic behavior are reconciled. According to Ghering, "They also explicitly paralleled the hegemonic global ambitions in the larger American culture following World War II with organized crime's similar desire for control, and The Godfather: Part II especially dramatized the moral consequences of exercising such power."
The Corleones are protected from the world through the tightness of their family. Their cohesion protects them from a corrupt, repressive and unjust world. Michael Corleone becomes the new Don after the death of Don Vito, and a killing spree ensues. Michael's role as a protagonist is significantly compromised by the killing spree, and we see him quickly develop into a magnate bereft of any of the sentimentality that characterized this character at the beginning of the movie. One of the more interesting twists is the death of Don Vito, which re-emphasizes the normative and almost fatalist themes that the book addresses; one expects him to die in a hail of bullets. Ultimately, however, we see how gang violence in a recursive, familial context is deterministic; it limits the destinies of the main characters in the way that a career in adult films limits opportunities for a young actress. As the popular plot formula dictates, the wealth experienced by Michael Corleone inevitably results in the disillusion of his formerly high ambitions.
This is reflected aptly in the second movie, when Michael's unrelenting pursuit of power loses him his wife, children and family.
Here we see Michael portrayed archetypically as the greed-sick patriarch who destroys his family due to inter-Nicene fighting. Simultaneously, we see flashbacks to his childhood to provide a contrast.
Ferrell depicts the same opinion in Literature and Film as Modern Mythology, "Once the environment provides the extrinsic motivation, a redemptive quality is provided for the protagonist. Puzo is then free to create a romantically realistic novel using a naturalistic act to provide an acceptable redemption for his protagonist. Don Coreleone is the epitome of an oxymoron -- an honest criminal in whom we could see a goodness. We are told that the attempt on his life is because he opposes the inclusion of a pernicious evil -- narcotics in his criminal operations. As a payback, he eliminates only those who had harmed him. The film's graphic ending demonstrates the lack of fear characters have in the loss of their soul. As the final scene shifts from the church where Michael Coreleone is acting as godfather to his sister's infant's baptism, his "soldiers" are systematically eliminating his criminal competition. His father has been avenged, and the audience accepts the action as retribution; no moral judgment is required. Michael's presence in the church suggests redemption. (Note that Michael is the name of a biblical archangel: "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon" [Rev. 12:7-9].)
Here again we are lead to see that Michael was originally a nice guy who plays along to feed his family and change the system. Marxist critics of the movie have claimed that this is a portrayal of capitalist vices: Corleone is seen as one who must resort to crime in order to live a happy life, but one who in turn exploits and eventually fails under the weight of an increasingly disenchanted family. Others have claimed that organized crime results from barriers to entry in the economy and the crimilization of many otherwise harmless or questionably harmless activities (such as drug use) and that Corleone's family is an allegory for the American government.
One argument for the presence of the violence in The Godfather was that it was simply there to make sure that the film was a success within its target demographic. Directors such as Coppola and Soderbergh are known for their almost over reliance on violence.