(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
“I can’t maintain the analogy any longer. They’re all Fredo. It’s Fredos all the way down, Fredos nested inside Fredos.”
— Simon Malloy
Let’s talk about Fredo for a little bit. Well, his little brother Mike too, but Fredo in particular.
The clown in a family of killers.
The bunny spawned by timber wolves.
He’s wandered into the cultural zeitgeist again thanks to a gleefully juvenile report from the Daily Beast on a supposed campaign nickname the for President’s son, Donald, Jr. It’s not exactly a shining moment in the media’s pushback against Trump — seriously guys, isn’t wallowing in third-grade name-calling their thing? — but it aptly illustrates Team Trump’s jaw-dropping mixture of arrogance and stupidity. Donald, Jr.’s freshly minted troubles with the Russians only highlight how their efforts to convince us of their power and strength often have the exact opposite effect. Trump’s appalling philosophy towards life has strange and troubling parallels in the Corleones, which in turn feeds the way the White House stumbles from one self-inflicted wound to another.
I suspect the Godfather movies resonate for the wrong reasons in Trump’s corner of the world, a corner divided into winners and losers where the constant struggle to dominate devours all other considerations. They fight like hell to “win,” which they define solely in nebulous terms of perception and position. That, in the end, becomes a self-defeating spiral, since they can’t tolerate even the smallest perceived failure… thus leading to absurd kerfuffles of the “we had the biggest inauguration crowd” variety.
That, in turn, brings me back to Don Vito and his family: uniquely American tragedians, who gain the world over the corpses of their rivals and lose their souls in the process. Theirs is intended as a cautionary example, and yet they inexplicably garner praise and admiration from viewers who fail to heed the lessons beneath the surface.
They’re not the only movie figures to suffer under such misreading. Gordon Gekko acts as the most notable example: a figure one step away from tying virgins to train tracks, but who somehow became a role model for generations of twisted Patrick Bateman clones.
You can find plenty of similar characters out there: Tyler Durden, Hannibal Lecter, and Al Pacino’s own Tony Montana just for starters. Then there’s Freddy Krueger, created by director Wes Craven as the boogeyman incarnate, who then watched that figure morph into a demented theme-park mascot. (The results troubled him so much he made an entire movie about the damage he feared he had inflicted on the world.)
The Corleones remain the most primal source of this kind of misappropriation, particularly Michael, who destroys his family in the very process of trying to protect it. Admirers see his slicked hair (emulated by Gekko, Bateman and Lecter, among others), his cold eyes, and his absolute mastery of an ugly and brutal world, and they say “yeah, I wanna be like him.” They like to think of themselves as Michael. The guy who gets things done. The Decider. The one the rest of the room regards with barely concealed terror. They view his inhumanity as strength, his coldness as toughness, and his steel Machiavellian mind as a virtue in and of itself.
The misreading comes because they focus on the surface details alone. They miss the shadows screaming from Pacino’s dark eyes: the way the qualities they adore so much have destroyed everything in this character’s life worth fighting for. They don’t see the terrible cost of his success. They only see a winner.
The film’s central tragedy comes in large part because Michael understands his own damnation. He feels the impact of what he’s done and he knows he can never ever atone for his terrible deeds. Having risen to the heights of power through absolute control, he can’t shut off those instincts before they destroy those closest to him. He has to protect what’s his, even if he ends up obliterating it all in the process. He sees it, and he simply can’t stop.
His admirers miss that, and in the process, they become the flipside of his coin: Fredo, the runt of the Corleone litter, whose half-baked dipshittery betrays his brother and ultimately earns him a bullet in the head. He holds nothing of Michael’s power: all hunched shoulders and nervous glances to see who’s watching. You hold your breath waiting for him to stumble backwards onto a table full of drinks, or pull a full-bore Inspector Clouseau down the nearest flight of stairs. If one views the world solely in terms of victory and defeat, few figures embody the latter as much as he.
But again, labeling him solely as a loser misses the humanity beneath his empty scorecard. In his own way, Fredo is no less tragic than his brother. He’s a man desperate for approval he can never earn, a failure who wants more than anything to be a success. Astute critics have noted his possible homosexuality, reason enough to be thoroughly miserable in a family whose definitions of masculinity literally divide life from death. Even without that possibility, he clearly lives in a world he lacks the temperament to navigate. Fredo knows he’s a fuck-up the same way that Michael knows he’s a monster. Their self-awareness gives their tragedy resonance: terrible wisdom that brings no profit to the wise.
The Trumps and their followers lack Michael’s insight, which turns their tragedy into farce. They fail to look at their mistakes or examine the places where they went wrong (which might help them avoid the very loss of face they fear so much). We hear the hollow-eyed defiance from the White House almost every day in the face of ridiculous and actionable mistakes: the steady drumbeat of “no apologies,” “never back down,” and “when he gets attacked, he punches back 10 times harder.” It was Trump’s active selling point on the campaign, the thing his supporters often cite as his most admirable quality and the thing that multiple members of his circle — including his son — clearly emulate. And yet outside of that circle, it fools no one. It simply embarrasses them, and through them, the country that put them in charge. The more they try to prove their Michaelness, the more they show us what Fredos they truly are.
Indeed, watch them closely and you can see their attitude switch from one brother to the other. Life in Trumpland is a pecking order, and if you aren’t eating you’re being eaten. When they go on the attack, they try to look stern and commanding and strong. They tell us it’s their way or the highway, drawing lines in the sand and swearing all manner of retribution to those who cross it. Then, when that falls apart, they cry about how unfair it all is. The steel and verve of Michael becomes the panicked whinging of Fredo, muttering about how he caught the biggest fish and demanding in tearful, breathless terms that he can run things too.
I honestly don’t know whether the Trump campaign really referred to Donald, Jr. as “Fredo” or not. Frankly it doesn’t matter. He IS Fredo… as is the entire administration, trying to convince us they haven’t waded way out past their depth. Fredo, at least, earned some manner of sympathy, thanks to John Cazale’s indelibly brilliant perfromance. These guys can’t even manage that, leaving them just a gang of fuck-ups. And if nothing else, the Godfather movies remind us why you never trust the fuck-ups… especially when they want you to.