The characters in Goodfellas are some of the most alive and memorable on film. I can rattle off their names off the top of my head without having seen the movie in years. By comparison, the characters in Godfather are mostly dull, slow, old and forgettable. Many of them feel like they are just waiting to die.
Godfather has nothing like this. In fact, Godfather is shot in such an amazingly bland and straight forward manner that it has come to feel a lot like a made-for-tv movie; it suffers that it is shot in an identical style as so many of the miniseries of the time. Indeed, not only is the camera work entirely generic, but there are no risks taken with the lighting, no risks taken with the staging, and no risks taken with the soundtrack.
Compare that with Goodfellas which is the first film outside of musicals to truly integrate the soundtrack as a means to light up a scene and mark the passing of time, or how it uses time warps to give scenes a sense of tension (slow motion killing of Samuel L. Jackson from multiple angles) or how its characters hover in unusual places for interesting shots. Think of the bar scene where the two enemy-camps-to-be are twenty feet apart talking down the bar. Had this been done in Godfather, the characters would all be huddled together center stage. Put simply, there is nothing innovative in Godfather, but Goodfellas is innovative from start to finish.
So Godfather sucks, right?
Well, no. Godfather is a decent movie. It’s not special enough that I would mention it here except that this is one of those that has a reputation which requires any film buff to see it. But it is a decent movie.
The way to enjoy this film is to understand that it is the ironic story of Michael. Michael is presented initially as a sensitive soul who disdains the murderous ways of his family and seems like he would be the savior of his family if only he were in charge. Unlike Vito, who seems tradition bound in a modern world, Michael is modern and practical. Unlike his hothead brother Sonny (James Caan), Michael comes across as a man who would never drag the family into pointless vendettas and can rationally solve any crisis. The only knock on Michael is that no one is sure he has the strength to issue ugly orders that may need to be issued because he is such a sensitive soul.
Well, when Michael takes over, he brings an analytical approach that at first rubs the others wrong. It seems like Michael will now get the chance to modernize the family and end the vendettas. He will run the family with logic and dispassion. Only, this doesn’t seem to work. His logic comes across as weakness and it seems like Michael fails to recognize that the other mobsters are truly despicable people who will forsake their own good for the things that Michael has rejected.
But logic is not static. And once Michael understand this, his dispassionate logic tells him to kill everything that stands in his way, without mercy or remorse. In so doing, he splits the family and becomes the brutal tyrant who has ruined his life by becoming everything he hates. We know he can never be happy again, nor can anyone else in the family. We also know that his actions will eventually destroy the family.