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.

11 comments:

Megan H said...

First of all I hated answering the question of when adam became a man in April Morning. Mostly because I didn't really care. Now this question about Michael, I do care about. I care so much in fact that I can't pick a moment. Maybe because all the moments combined are what really change him and without each one of them he wouldn't become the next godfather. For me it's a matter of when does michael begin to condone the family business. So many of his actions can be explained by the deep love he has for his father, while still maintaining a disgust for the mafia. So for me the change occurs when it stops being personal and becomes "strictly business." And I'm still not sure when that moment is, I guess I better re-watch the film.

Richard Hourula said...

Excellent answer. It demonstrates your critical thinking skills and understanding of the film. I think you are right to want to watch the movie again.
You must have a terrific father -- oh wait, that's me!
A+

R. D. Finch said...

What a thoughtful post. My own opinion is that the execution of the two men in the restaurant and all the things that led up to it certainly signaled a change in Michael. But this was all based on his feelings for his father, filial loyalty, if you will. After the "vacation" in Sicily, there was no reason that Michael couldn't have returned to his old life and had nothing more to do with the family "business." I always thought that this was the intention: to get him out of the way until things cooled down and then let him return to his former life and fulfill the plans Vito had for him (which didn't include being part of the business). His obligation to his father was discharged. So for me the one thing that irrevocably changed Michael was the assassination of his Sicilian wife. His father survived; his wife didn't. And she was an innocent victim too. Also, it showed Michael that he could never go back to his old life and forget what he had done in that restaurant, because his act had triggered the endless vendetta where an act of revenge begets another act of revenge, and so on forever. The fact that his brother's death left a power vacuum in the organization provided Michael with the opportunity to act on his changed values. But for me it was his wife's death that was the real point from which he no longer wanted to turn back. From that point on he became a bitter and ruthless man, and love was replaced with hate and the quest for power.

Richard Hourula said...

R.D. You get an A as well.

Joe said...

The Godfather is one of my fav films and I think it's because Michael's arc is so satisfying.

I studied screenwriting as part of my film production degree at university in Leeds, England.
What you've done here is map out Michael's progression brilliant, and shown how character progression works better than any example we were given on the course.

Each one of the above plot points require Michael to make a decision that will both drive the story forward and push him further along on his inner journey. Each one packs a heavy emotional punch for the character and for us, and there's one for every sequence of the film. I found this really useful - cheers.

For me, the point of no return for Michael is when his Italian sweetheart is killed. Up until that point, like R D Finch says, Michael could have returned to a normal life. After she's blown up, there's simply no going back.

When we next see Michael, over a year later, he IS the Godfather.

Andrew said...

For me the entire hospital scene is the turning point and the subsequent events, e.g. shooting solozzo merely entrench him further. Two things about the hospital scene are crucial for me. 1st, he perhaps reestablishes a closeness to his father that theyve not had for years. I say perhaps because at the end of part II *SPOILER ALERT* the flashback scene suggests that prior to leaving to fight in the war michael was somewshat estranged from his family. Im not sure if coppolla intended for this to be a factor in the storyline in part I though. The 2nd important aspect of the hospital scene is michaels coolness under pressure. There is a subtle moment when Michael takes the lighter from Enzos fumbling hands and lights it for him. Michael then pauses for a moment marvelling at the fact that his hands arent shaking a bit. i think at this moment hes realizing there is something in him that he didnt recognize before but which would enable him to take a larger role in the family.

Robert Williams Jr. said...

I, too, am a huge fan of The Godfather Trilogy! To me Michael Corleone is a sort of tragic hero. (English majors will be familiar with the term)In my opinion there is a certain point where Michael changes emotionally, which allow him to commit the physical act of violence in the restaurant. If we recall, as Michael and Kay are walking home seemingly from Christmas gift shopping they pass a newstand where they are astonished to see that his father has been shot. Michael then rushes to the hospital to see his father and whispers these words into Vito's ear, "I'M WITH YOU NOW." For me this is when Michael begins to change. He is with his father in every way possible. We must understand that the Trilogy is concerned deeply with not just the idea of crime families, but also the idea of the natural family. In The Original, Vito turns to crime as a last resort to providing for the natural family he has created. In Part 2 Michael turns to crime to protect his father, as he states, "I don't want my father bothered anymore." In Part 3, Vincent offers to take over in order to sustain the Corleone family, which he loves sincerely. Michael gives Vincent an ominous warning that sums up the whole matter. He warns Vincent that, "When they come at you, they will come at what you love." This is what caused Michael to change. The attempt on his father's life was in essence an attempt on his own. Their enemies had threatened the constant in Michael's life-his father's love, wisdom, leadership, and life. Therefore, when he whispers those words into his father's ears, he is in fact acknowledging his willingness to change and the actual change itself.--RW

Simon C said...

Just watching Godfather right now and I was just thinking about this topic

The moment when Michael realises that he will have to become involved is on the steps of the hospital after his father's would be murderers leave

The baker tries in vain to light a cigarette, he is too shaken to do so. Michael effortlessly lights it for him and looks at his steady hands for a moment

For me, this is the moment he changes and realises what his true calling is

The punch thrown by McCloskey is purely incidental as Michael already knows that the police are in on the assassination attempt, they sent Tessio's men home

Michael stresses this point to Sonny afterwards, that as long as Solozzo is alive, Vito is doomed. McCloskey is merely collateral damage as he is Solozzo's bodyguard

It always surprised me that there wasn't an immediate response against Tessio. Surely he was in on it at this stage

Wisdom26 said...

I agree that the punch from the authoritative figure changed Michael but I would argue that the true turning point was his wife's assassination. As mentioned before, Michael became cold-hearted after his wife's death. I also agree that if he returned to the United State with her he would have tried to live a normal life. Unfortunately he realized that he couldn't escape the consequences of his actions and so he had no choice but to work alongside his father. Sunny's Death was just an extra step eliminated that got him close to the DON position.

Truly though, Michael became Joe Mafioso After his innocent pregnant wife was accidentally assassinated. If you watch how he reacts in the second film he really only cares about his kids. He may have loved Katey but after her abortion he did not care about her anymore. He did love his children beyond anything else. You would only see a non-cold hearted MIchael around his children. Besides that everything else was plainly and simply business.

At the end it all depends on what you mean by "change". When did Michael change from law abiding to Criminal? Then the answer would be when he shot the cop and the gangster. When did Michael change his views on the system he once served? Then Clearly when the a crooked cop punched him. But if you are asking, when did Michael change from a human being to a cold hearted mafioso?, then it was clearly when his pregnant wife was mistakingly assassinated.

Remember in italy Michael was ok we his actions up until he saw that he could never get away from their consequences.

Wisdom26 said...

I agree that the punch from the authoritative figure changed Michael but I would argue that the true turning point was his wife's assassination. As mentioned before, Michael became cold-hearted after his wife's death. I also agree that if he returned to the United State with her he would have tried to live a normal life. Unfortunately he realized that he couldn't escape the consequences of his actions and so he had no choice but to work alongside his father. Sunny's Death was just an extra step eliminated that got him close to the DON position.

Truly though, Michael became Joe Mafioso After his innocent pregnant wife was accidentally assassinated. If you watch how he reacts in the second film he really only cares about his kids. He may have loved Katey but after her abortion he did not care about her anymore. He did love his children beyond anything else. You would only see a non-cold hearted MIchael around his children. Besides that everything else was plainly and simply business.

At the end it all depends on what you mean by "change". When did Michael change from law abiding to Criminal? Then the answer would be when he shot the cop and the gangster. When did Michael change his views on the system he once served? Then Clearly when the a crooked cop punched him. But if you are asking, when did Michael change from a human being to a cold hearted mafioso?, then it was clearly when his pregnant wife was mistakingly assassinated.

Remember in italy Michael was ok we his actions up until he saw that he could never get away from their consequences.

john said...

Thanks