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No Regrets: Goodfellas and American Hardball

THE WISEGUYS IN GOODFELLAS AND THE WISEGUYS IN OUR DEFENSE DEPARTMENT—WHATEVER THEIR LIMITATIONS—GET STUFF DONE. AND YOU LOVE THEM FOR IT.
DISCUSSED
Honorable Gangsters, The Godfather, Corporate Culture, Shameless Politicians, GoodFellas, Reaganism, Oskar Schindler, Macbeth, The Roman Empire, Camelot, Monty Python, Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, Thucydides, The Fuel Economy, Gangsters’ Kids, Guilty Gangsters, Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger
by Jim Shepard
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

No Regrets: Goodfellas and American Hardball

Jim Shepard
21 Snaps

“The American experience so often is grief disguised as plenitude.”

—W. S. Di Piero

Early on in Harold Ramis’s Analyze This, mob boss Robert De Niro’s trusted old consigliere trots out a complaint we’ve heard before from movie mobsters: Things aren’t what they used to be; there’s no honor anymore among thieves. That movie’s popularity was based on an unexamined weirdness: that the spectacularly paradoxical, if not incoherent, character that De Niro played—the murderous don with the secret heart of gold—is an accepted type, and has been since Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II helped create a portrait of organized crime that’s now a rock-solid part of our popular culture. In both Godfathers, family and loyalty—the unshakable solidarity of the group—are valued above all else. And of course, one of the thematic hints deployed regularly throughout the two movies, which made them seem so cheekily subversive, was the parallel they were willing to draw between the Corleone family and corporate culture. Audiences thrilled at the sheer irreverence of it: Were the Tattaglias really no different than United Fruit?

Well, as we look around us in despair, here in mid-2003, at a group of people in charge of our political and corporate landscape who appear positively ebullient in their rapacity—and who appear more and more openly and shamelessly to understand that now, finally, in ways only dreamed about before, the gloves can really come off—the most accurate cinematic template for our new political and corporate culture is not The Godfather, or even Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—jeez, it turns out that some of those people think greed is good—but Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Maybe nowhere else in American film can we find such a paradigmatic version of high-spirited and lethally destructive fuck-you selfishness, or such a portrait of the way the perpetrators of such selfishness expect the rest of us to be charmed by their good fortune. “It was more that Henry was enterprising. That he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while other men were sitting on their asses waiting for handouts,” Karen, Henry Hill’s wife, tells us by way of explaining why her husband felt justified in bending a few rules, and in the process sounds like she’s been attending cocktail parties at Enron. Or Halliburton. Or the Texas legislature.

When it first came out in 1992, GoodFellas was read by more than one critic, in fact, as an indictment of some of the worst excesses of Reaganism. But boy, if it seemed oddly relevant then, it seems drop-dead accurate now.

*

One of the implicit—and, for an audience, intensely pleasurable—propositions of the Godfather series was that beautifully controlled violence as a means to an end was not only possible but desirable, and that the massive accumulation of wealth by a few of the good bad guys was all right, since, after all, it would also benefit some of those innocents dependent on the good bad guys. Vito Corleone muscled in on the local hood running his neighborhood so that his kids would have their shot at the American Dream. His son Michael decided he needed a third of Cuba apparently for the same reason.

GoodFellas works with a kind of pitiless comprehensiveness to demolish such propositions. If you make your living through violence, it repeatedly demonstrates, you are not being strong for your family. You are almost certainly ensuring the destruction of your family. Because what you’re unleashing in one realm is going to have ramifications in the other. This is a dramatic irony that The Sopranos has lifted from GoodFellas, we notice. Along with a fair portion of GoodFellas’s supporting cast.

There are few moviegoing pleasures as bracing as an epic that gives you everything you want while allowing you to pretend that it’s been delivering hard truths. We can call that the Oskar Schindler Rule, if you’d like. The Academy Awards seem to have been established to honor those bitter-covered sugar pills. And how many movies have pulled off that sleight of hand as well, or had as much of an impact doing it, as The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II?

Of course, there’s a basic unfairness to such a claim. All movies (according to the Hollywood business equation) must deliver pleasure, and lots of it, in the form of entertainment. And The Godfathers are no more interested in history than Macbeth is. And they certainly deliver more strong medicine than, say, Ben-Hur, or Saving Private Ryan. But the series also hit on a marketing strategy that the Republican Party has since mastered: embedding the expected Concern for Values within a reverence for nostalgia while steamrolling whatever traditions get in the way of a buck. The Godfathers insistently cast a rosy glow backward, claiming the real tragedy to be not gangsterism but the way gangsterism lost its family values. (This is made explicit in the first Godfather: Other ethnic groups and their agendas, such as drugs, we’re told, sapped the honor out of running a crime family.) In The Godfather: Part II, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, the Corleones’ rock-ribbed consigliere, compares them to the Roman Empire, and our understanding of the family’s history mirrors the traditional view of the empire, which romanticizes the early days of the republic and laments the later decay of moral fiber in Imperial Rome. What we’re encouraged to overlook in that formulation, of course, is the fact that if you got in either Rome’s way—and even, sometimes, if you didn’t—you got steamrolled.

The insistent theme of the series is the deterioration of values presided over by Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. In II, Michael’s America in the late fifties is contrasted with the halcyon days of his young father Vito, a character of such laconic and steely-eyed rectitude that the role won De Niro his first Academy Award. Vito occasionally killed people, but only arrogant and cruel oppressors we didn’t mind seeing killed. In those days you could kill and be a family man. Then there were values.

Back then, in gangster families, fathers were doting, mothers were faithful and uncomplaining, followers were almost always loyal and good-natured, and violence and family values were easy to compartmentalize. For Vito, going home again to Sicily involved avenging his mother’s murder by filleting the local don and then taking his family to Mass in the don’s little village. Neither act affected the other in the slightest. None of the locals even seemed disturbed at the morning’s assassination.

*

Like Patton, which Coppola also wrote, The Godfathers lure us in with their protagonists’ heroic qualities, but feel like more than hagiography—feel bracing and adult—because they remind us of their protagonists’ more problematic activities. Still, the heroic qualities are always arranged to overshadow the problematic. It’s a view of organized crime so evidently appealing that it’s rarely been challenged, at least not by other movies looking to make equally large pots of money.

One of the first to seriously do so was Scorsese’s GoodFellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book about real-life mobster Henry Hill. Most of the mobsters Scorsese knew loved the Godfather movies. Henry Hill loved them. When Scorsese asked why, Hill told him, “You know, they’re like King Arthur and the Round Table.” His analogy hit the nail on the head, in terms of the power of the legend: That’s most people’s only version of medieval British history. If ever I would leave you, it wouldn’t be in summer…

Well, if The Godfather is Camelot, GoodFellas is Monty Python and the Holy Grail with periodic ass-kickings. (Early on in the latter, John Cleese asks Eric Idle why he assumed Graham Chapman to be a king, and Idle answers, “He’s hasn’t got shit all over ’im.”)

GoodFellas doesn’t dignify the nature of such a business. Which is not to say it doesn’t demonstrate its appeal. It is to say, though, that it makes the nature of that appeal a little more unpleasantly clear.

Think of the difference in the way the by now obligatory scene of the godfather receiving petitions is handled. Michael and Vito Corleone tend toward formalwear, which has a real retro-GQ look in the rich mahogany gloom of their stately offices. Paulie—Paul Sorvino—in GoodFellas crowds his crappy TV tray with his sausage sandwich in his chain-link fenced backyard. Paulie’s movie may convey the visceral buzz of the wiseguy’s life, but it also conveys the minginess of such spiritual bankruptcy, and the toll.

Its most relentless agenda, though, is to demythologize the connections—the loyalties—supposedly inherent in such a business. Jimmy and Tommy, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s characters, will do anything for Henry, Ray Liotta’s character. And they’d kill him at the drop of a hat. In fact, the movie is structured by betrayals, as we alternate between bonds being celebrated and violated. There’s a long track across the head table holding all the wiseguys during Henry’s wedding. They’re having a great time, livin’ the life. And by the end, thoughtful moviegoers will realize, every single male at that table besides Paulie and Jimmy has been killed by Paulie or Jimmy. Henry tells us proudly that wiseguys had a lot of principles they lived by, but the one greatest principle by far was: Never rat on your friends. And he rats on his friends. And while he’s doing so, he’s not even remotely sorry he’s selling them out.

Is he sorry for the wreck of his life? Is he sorry for all the killing he’s been a part of? After everything has disintegrated, his main regret is that the Party Down era is over. Even as we see his lifelong pals Jimmy and Paulie standing up in court to receive their sentences, Henry’s voice-over has already forgotten them, in his celebratory nostalgia: “We had it all just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen and a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away.”

It’s Scorsese’s portrait of Hill’s shamelessness and his inability to be educated in ethical terms that’s turned out to be so prescient about where we were headed as a country. This summer in the news I’ve been treated to, just to choose a random sampling, Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, remarking in Vanity Fair that disarming Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was nothing more than a “bureaucratic reason” for war; Donald Rumsfeld, when asked at a press conference just what had happened to all of those weapons, suggesting with a straight face that maybe Saddam had gotten rid of them all before we arrived; and someone named Michael Ledeen, who’s apparently Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, going on record to announce, “Every ten years or so the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Their message is the same as the wiseguys’ message in GoodFellas: Are we lying? Of course we’re lying. And guess what? You’re going to sit there and take it.

Because they believe they know what the wiseguys know—what Thucydides reported to us the Athenians knew, when dictating terms: that “[t]he question of justice arises only between parties of equal strength. The strong do what they can, and the weak submit.”

The strong do what they can, and the weak submit. We can get behind that, if the strong are working for us. Which they are, they’re quick to point out. So we share their shamelessness. One week after the powers that be announced the Iraqi war over, the EPA announced that the average fuel economy of America’s cars and trucks has fallen to its lowest level in twenty-two years. Does anyone around you look embarrassed? Polls, for what they’re worth, demonstrate that the American public never did get clear why we were supposed to be invading Iraq. What the administration discovered, to its delight and possible relief, was that it didn’t matter.

*

In the Godfather series, corruption is something that in­volves a lot of grand, operatic turning points. Poor Diane Keaton, as Kay, Michael’s wife in The Godfather: Part II, has to deliver lines like these: “Michael, at this mo­ment, I feel no love for you at all. I never thought that would happen, but it has.”

In GoodFellas, corruption is more sordid and deflating than dramatic. Everyone goes about their business, which is taking care of themselves. Very late in the movie we register that Karen, Henry’s wife, is using cocaine big-time. It’s news to us. We never even saw her habit start.

Corruption in GoodFellas is so pervasive and banal that it’s simultaneously dismal and funny. Karen reminds Henry before he leaves for a hard day’s work that she needs money. He asks how much, and she moves her forefinger and thumb as far apart as she can and says, “This much.” When he balks at the amount, she drops out of the frame to convince him. We hear his zipper lowered, and Henry, his hands still up in the air, holding money, goes, “Oh, all right.”

Part of the wiseguys’ appeal is inseparable from what makes them so appalling. They know what they want, and they can sum it up in one word: more. Not just money and power; they have those. Halfway through the movie they pull off the Lufthansa heist, a $6 million score. And why aren’t they satisfied after that? Because they want more. It’s precisely that rapacity, that appetite, that makes them who they are, that allows them to recognize themselves. There is no end. There are only means. There’s no finish point if you’re perpetrating the kind of fraud that disintegrated Enron; there are only way stations of accumulation and deception. You go from one to the other, and keep moving. That’s the ethic on display in our foreign policy, as well: Let’s get things moving a little. Take down Afghanistan. Take down Iraq. I don’t like the look of Syria, either. And what’s up with Iran?

Scorsese’s wiseguys pay some lip service to the notion that they’re doing this for somebody else—for their families—but, as Henry points out to us more than once, part of the exquisite joy of the life is that they really don’t have to care about anything else. Especially when they’re having a good time and making money—which is nearly all the time. At bottom, they don’t give a shit about wives, kids, mistresses, or, when it comes right down to it, each other.

And for all its in-your-face flamboyance, the movie is systematic in the understated way in which it reminds us that, by the way, kids live in their world. After a savage fight between Henry and Karen about his going to see his mistress, we’re given a shot of their little daughter in hallway, listening. After a close-up of Karen ringing his mistress’s apartment buzzer and calling her a “fucking whore,” we cut to discover that her kids are with her. During visiting day in jail, while Karen throws around the drugs and food she’s smuggled in for Henry, upset that his mistress has visited, the framing doesn’t forget either of their little girls: One’s crying while the other just looks on, stupefied.

The effect of the lifestyle is a leveling of moral proportion, a flattening nicely embodied by Henry’s last day before his big bust, when he’s trying to do everything at once: fix his tomato sauce, sell some guns, package his drugs, etc.

Which brings us back to violence. It’s what’s at the heart of the wiseguys’ appeal. They don’t waffle around; they act. And that usually involves somebody getting hurt. Both Coppola and Scorsese are categorized as directors fascinated by violence. But it’s helpful to think about how differently they use it.

One of the basic organizing principles of the Godfather series is the controlled organization of its violence, that operatic gathering of tension generated by a lot of systematic crosscutting, often be­tween at least three locations. The sequence from The Godfather: Part II involving young Vito Corleone’s first murder is a typical example. In the middle of a pageant in Little Italy we alternate, in subtly accelerating rhythms, between details of the pageant itself; the evil don, making his way back to his apartment through the crowd; and Vito, working his way toward him. The music of the pageant—a march—becomes Vito’s theme music, the music of the intrepid adventurer, as he leaps from one rooftop to another. The excessive crosscutting not only generates suspense; it also overprepares us for the violence and, by extending the delay, makes the violence itself all the more cinematically satisfying.

As is often the case in Coppola’s work, the culmination of the violence is not quite what we expect—it turns out, disconcertingly, that Vito shoots the man in the cheek, and that the towel with which he swaddled the gun as a silencer catches fire—in order to make everything feel a little more spontaneous. But the actual onset of violence could not be more carefully anticipated.

And once he’s back on the stoop, having completed his task, he snuggles with his family, his young wife and toddlers arrayed around him, and murmurs, “Michael, your father loves you very, very much.” So. Do we think that what just happened was justified? Well, the movie’s going to help us along, if we’re having trouble deciding. There’s also someone with a guitar on the stoop—you know, it’s one of those pastoral, ethnic-neighborhood moments—playing the theme of the movie: the Godfather theme. Little Sonny and little Michael squirm around, their future assured. The melting pot, in operation: some little fish rise up. Others may have to go under.

Compare that to probably the most famous scene from GoodFellas. Joe Pesci’s Tommy is telling stories in a bar and making everybody laugh. Henry tells him he’s funny. Tommy asks for a clarification of what Henry means. And we first come to realize that Henry’s in trouble, that the situation may have changed, because of the silence that falls as Tommy starts his questioning. Before we even register that the background noise has stopped, we feel the difference. Horror films use sound the same way.

And Pesci himself usually plays Tommy as all gesture and sound, so that when he stops, the effect is startling. These guys are all about noise. And when they stop being about noise, we notice.

The scene is a little primer on the nature of the violence in that world. Sometimes the violence is comic, sometimes it’s frightening, and sometimes it’s both, but nobody’s very sure which category they’re confronting. And the movie continually demonstrates the consequences of those kinds of blurred distinctions: A guy getting a bottle in the face is funny, nothing to worry about, as is shooting the foot of a kid who’s too slow to bring you drinks, and when the kid makes you feel uncomfortable, showing some resentment over being shot in the foot, you kill him. And what does De Niro’s character say, having seen the kid shot, after having egged Pesci’s character on? “I was only kidding around with you.” Jeez. How could anyone tell? We certainly couldn’t. As Pesci’s character says to another guy while they’re giving each other grief, and just before he stomps him (literally) to death: “I don’t know. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like you’re kiddin’.”

With these guys, violence may not happen when we think it will. And it can happen whenever we relax. That’s part of what’s so disconcerting the first time we see the “You think I’m funny?” scene: we’re with Henry, and Henry’s our surrogate, so we thought we were safe. We thought this show was for us. We hadn’t expected it could turn on us. We hadn’t expected our spectacle to have danger in it. We hadn’t expected hanging around killers to be unsettling. We like to know when we’re safe and when we’re not, and GoodFellas refuses us that comfort. Henry shouts, after waking up to find Karen holding a gun to his head: “In my own house I gotta worry about this?”

The design makes us live with the wiseguy’s inability to draw moral distinctions. Henry explains for us the ironclad, unshakable foundation of their world: “If you got out of line, you got whacked. Sometimes if you didn’t get out of line, you got whacked.” The movie is littered with the corpses of guys who thought they were in a movie called The Godfather but wised up a little too late. We’re like them: We were enjoying this ride with Henry, and then we were ready to get off, but we were in deeper and associated with people a little more unpleasant than we realized. And the movie makes us pay for our complicity and enjoyment.

And it was a heck of a ride. Scorsese uses a moving camera with as much joy and eloquence as any living director, and we’re given in GoodFellas three Steadicam tours (the Steadicam being a lightweight, gyroscopically balanced body rig that allows the camera to go just about anywhere). The first, a tour of Paulie’s cellar, serves as a comic deflation of the rhetoric of the Great Old Days; the second, of a bar, serves as an introduction to most of the secondary wiseguys; and the third is the dazzling backdoor entry to the Copacabana. Those tours, because of the seductiveness of the camera movement itself, serve as a floor show of sorts—for Henry and for us. The exuberance of the filmmaking is part of what makes us feel so viscerally how seductive this kind of wiseguy energy and lifestyle can be. The Copacabana sequence evokes just how impressive Henry was to Karen: It demonstrates for us the kind of entry into a dizzying world that she describes to us in voice-over. And it enacts the ethic of the wiseguy: Do a little backdoor maneuvering, go around the schnooks who wait in line. Henry’s power unfolds before us: Doors open, everyone recognizes him, everything parts before him effortlessly. And the final resting point of all that movement reminds us that it’s all about means, not ends; it reminds us of the small-time nature of these triumphs. This is not a moment when a crime boss is being outmaneuvered. All of that energy and payola and virtuoso camerawork and what-have-you has gone into what? Getting Henry a table in front of Henny Youngman.

GoodFellas is designed as a crazed amusement-park ride through the underworld, a ride that accelerates, and then accelerates again, before finally breaking down. The first hour tracks a maniacally high-spirited rise to power, but a rise to power that began with a brutal killing. Then the movie cycles back to that killing: the one that finally eliminated for Henry any last illusions about the wiseguys’ “code.” The victim hadn’t done anything; what’s more, he was one of them; and, what’s more, he was an elite version of one of them, a made guy. The movie’s entire second hour is devoted to a downward slide toward the day of their arrest. And the final thirty minutes are an extended coda of revenge, betrayal, and collapse.

At the end of The Godfather: Part II, loyalties are also breaking down. Michael Corleone’s murder of his main rival (who used to be one of his father’s closest allies), the voluntary suicide of his loyal lieutenant, and the murder of his hapless and betraying brother are all presented as heavy burdens for Michael to bear. They also, how­ever, become the occasion for a memory, a flashback that summons nearly the entire cast back from the first Godfather. The original effect is now hard to recreate, but for sheer, crowd-pleasing brio, it’s hard to imagine a more brilliant stroke. Precisely when the film seems bleakest, it provides the audience with its deepest desire: a return to the old days, before everything deteriorated. The audience hadn’t seen James Caan as Sonny, Michael’s older brother, since he’d been murdered early in the first movie. Other old faces—here’s Tessio! here’s Carlo!—are resurrected, as well. And after those surprises the movie even hints at the ultimate surprise—a return appearance by Marlon Brando! (The occasion of the flashback is old Vito’s surprise birthday party. The audience tease about Brando’s possible reappearance extends even to his daughter’s offscreen exclamation, “He’s here!”)

Before Vito’s arrival, though, the argument at the dinner table between his sons reveals where Michael initially went astray. Sonny tells him, “Government ain’t your blood; remember that.” Vito comes home; everyone else goes off-camera to celebrate. We dissolve from Michael alone and still at the table to Michael as a baby with his father on the train in Sicily (after his father has just pulled off that murder-someone-and-then-go-to-Mass stunt), and we dissolve from that to the famous image of Michael alone at Tahoe, wearing black, sitting in a chair, grimly aware of his moral decline. We track slowly into a monumental close-up of him while that lushly romantic Godfather theme overwhelms our ability to resist. Fade to black.

GoodFellas has no patience for concluding gestures that smack of the poignant. Henry, in the process of ratting out his friends, addresses us directly, trying for the last time to get through our thick heads that he doesn’t regret having chosen that life, but only regrets being like us, people for whom he has only contempt. Our last image of him is as a dull homeowner in the witness protection program, picking up the morning paper and looking at us as if the nasty joke is that his status as our mirror image is the worst punishment of all. Earlier in the movie he’d let us know what he thought of people like us: “Those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subways to work everyday and worried about their bills were dead.” And that’s where he’s ended up: an “average nobody who has to live the rest of his life like a schnook.”

It isn’t a coincidence that Henry’s and his pals’ spirits are highest during the fifties and early sixties, that the watershed turn takes place at the beginning of the seventies, and that the crash comes in the eighties. His timeline invites us to read the movie as a history of postwar American consumer culture, a reading that Scorsese confirms when he says in interviews that really, the movie is all about money. (And we remember how often money itself is a central image, whether it’s close-ups of fat rolls of bills changing hands at Christmas, or of all those en­velopes with presidents peeking through the oval windows at Henry and Karen’s wedding. During the latter image we hear someone murmur, “So beautiful.”) The movie, when it came out, certainly hit some kind of nerve. That it’s a critique of something more than just the underworld seems confirmed by the fact that Warner Bros., excited by the movie’s obvious narrative appeal and star power, thought initially that it would work as a mass release, and previewed it in the wealthy suburb of Sherman Oaks, California. The preview audience reacted with such outrage that the studio was forced to scotch the idea.

*

Before the movie finishes—with Henry shutting the door in our faces—we’re given another glimpse of what he’ll never forget and what we were most fascinated by: Tommy, the most dangerous and unstable wiseguy of them all, back from the dead and calmly shooting at us. He acts out Henry’s contempt and aggression in the wiseguys’ real language, and reminds us one last time the way Henry recalls, without any remorse, the life that’s now gone. He’s done what he’s done, and he’d do it again. And if we don’t like it, that’s tough shit.

Part of what gives figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld their beltway appeal is the unembarrassed aura they project that they have done bad things and will do bad things. They cultivate that same sort of pornographic don’t-fuck-with-me-I’m-the-guy-who-bombed-Cambodia appeal that Henry Kissinger has enjoyed all these years. It’s worked for them. It’s made them the closest thing the right has to actual warrior heroes. That’s not an unimportant point: Their stature derives not from having fought in a war, but from having projected a bracing, I-never-gave-it-a-second-thought species of ruthlessness. Coppola’s Vito Corleone was deeply sad about the life he’d made for his family. Michael Corleone was steely-eyed in his resolve but, we were assured, secretly tormented and bereft in the end. Henry Hill made clear in every way he could that remorse or second thoughts were for other people. No hair shirts for him. Instead he collaborated on a self-celebrating memoir (though not a memoir as grot­esquely self-celebrating as the three Henry Kissinger has written) before returning to drug-dealing. He set up a website for mob buffs, including a feature called “Whack of the Week.”

And we’re the schnooks who gape and give these people our grudging or not so grudging admiration. We’re the schlemiels who shrug and think to ourselves, Well, at least they get things done.

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