19 January 2009
Essay Question: When Does Michael Corleone Change?
In high school and middle school English classes students read a novel and then, at the behest of their teacher, beat it to death.
Before I completed my credential program I was a tutor in a middle school English class at the school where I was student teaching. The students had just read Howard Fast's novel of the American Revolution, April Morning. They were assigned an essay in which they had to address the question of when Adam (a central character) became a man. I ended up teaching at the same school for 20 years and for 20 years students in English classes read April Morning and wrote essays theorizing about when Adam achieved manhood.
I have a version of that question that comes to mind whenever I watch my favorite film of all time, The Godfather (1972): "When does Michael transform from being Joe College to Joe Mafia?" As you may recall, at the beginning of the film Michael Corleone is a recently returned war hero who wants nothing to do with "the family business." By the time the movie ends Michael is in charge of that very family business (it's not really focused on olive oil). He does not hesitate to order killings, even of his own brother-in-law.
So when did he change? Was there a bolt of lightening moment?
Here are some possible moments, offered in chronological order.
The Hospital Bed. Michael arrives at the hospital to visit his father who has been shot and is in serious condition. He father is still very much at risk of another attack but has been left unprotected. Michael enlists the help of a baker who has showed up to pay his respects and moves his father's bed. He and the baker then stand outside the hospital pretending to have guns. They in fact scare off a car seemingly filled with potential assassins. Michael has clearly turned a corner. He is protecting his father. But he is also at one level a participant in the family business and he neither can nor will turn back.
The Punch. Having successfully moved his father and spooked some menacing figures, Michael is confronted by a police captain, McCluskey. The two argue over whether police protection should be provided. Michael brashly suggests that the cop check with the crime boss for whom he works. The incensed officer punches Michael in the face, breaking his jaw. This is a profound moment for Michael. He's been viciously struck by policeman, essentially while protecting his father. This is quite close to a literal lightening bolt as he is shocked into a life changing decision.
The Decision. As the family decides what their next move is going to be in wake of the attempt on the Godfather's life, Michael offers a suggestion. He'll meet with the invulnerable crime boss, Solozzo, and his constant protection, the aforementioned McCluskey, and shoot them both. Though initially laughed off by his older brother, the plan is made. Michael has offered himself as the one to kill the family's chief rival and a New York City cop to boot. There is absolutely no turning back for Michael at this point. He has committed himself to the family forever at the sacrifice of a normal, law abiding life.
The Bada Bing. Michael calmly and coolly carries out the double execution. He shoots the two men in the head and takes it on the lam in Sicily under extended family protection. Once he fires those shots he's in. His ability to pull the trigger and end two other people's lives mean he has, if not gone over to the dark side, gone to a darker place in his soul. Any dreams of a life outside the family's business are forever dashed at this moment.
The News. While hiding out in Sicily Michael receives the news that his older brother has been killed. Given the fragile health of his father and the weaknesses of his remaining brother Fredo, Michael surely knows that he must take over the family business upon returning to America. He may still have entertained hopes of putting the murders he committed behind him and living a peaceful life with his new Sicilian bride, but the assassination of his brother pushes changes that. Now he knows he'll be needed and he must answer the call. His life course has been set.
The Explosion. Michael witnesses the death of his bride in a car explosion fully realizing the bomb was meant for him. In Sicily he found love and happiness in the form of a beautiful innocent young woman. With her fiery death Michael is forever and irrevocably hardened. From this point on we see a different Michael. One who rarely even smiles. He is cold, calculating and all business. The light in his soul so evident through the first part of the film has been extinguished. His heart is dark. The horrible death of his wife has made him forever cold and not incidentally, a natural crime boss.
Of course, the question of when and how Michael changes is central to the entire movie. If one were going to teach a class on the film (if so, sign me up) that essay question would have to be on the final. For me it all starts with the punch. He has been struck violently in the face by a man who is supposed to be an officer of the law. This moment comes as he is trying to guarantee the safety of his father who is in hospital upon as a consequence of being shot repeatedly.
That the punch results in a broken jaw is not necessarily significant. It is the fact of the punch that's important. Watch him afterwards. It is in his next scene, jaw swollen, that he offers to shoot Solozzo and McCloskey. Note his intensity. There's no blink. There is no hesitation. There is no betrayal of emotion, not even in the face of his older brother's teasing. There is only resolution. He is now ready to cross the line to commit the ultimate sin and break the central law of our society. The punch changes Michael. Before he was a "civilian," safe from the violence that regularly visits Mafia families. Now he has essentially enlisted in the cause. It's the punch that did it.
One can certainly argue (and I would agree) that this was a path that Michael was likely headed once his father was shot. But certain events had to line up for Michael to ultimately become Godfather, notably the death of Sonny. Once his father was shot, the punch in the jaw was the trigger for all the other dominoes to fall.
If anyone disagrees and think another of the above-mentioned events was the real trigger (no pun intended) you'll get no argument from me. Provided, students, that you can support your answer.