Over the weekend my fiance and I watched the first two Godfather movies and then, pinch-hitting for part three, Goodfellas. She had never seen these movies all the way through and I was interested in looking at them again in light of the current Sopranos season and some of the things I've written about it.
After watching Goodfellas again, I'd alter and/or expand on my comments.
Goodfellas doesn't encourage us to identify with Henry Hill. Ray Liota's voice-over doesn't really help us get inside his character's head: it's more of a device Scorsese uses to expose Hill's hypocrisy and skewed vision of the world. There's a real feeling of moral outrage underneath the movie's slick surface. And while Goodfellas, to a certain extent, revels in the standard "power trip" aspect of the gangster movie*, both the screenplay and the set design emphasize that there's something small time about all these supposedly "big time" guys. There's nothing like Vito Corleone's sense of personal honor and his dedication to his family that allows the wiseguys in Goodfellas to transcend their thuggishness.
The Sopranos does want us to see things from Tony's POV, but, while he's drawn with more complexity and nuance than any of the characters in Goodfellas, he (a) is still pretty much a thug and (b) lacks that extra dimension that makes his story really tragic. Of course, the people who make the show seem to be aware of this: he's the mob boss of New Jersey after all, the castle he's built for himself is pretty tacky, and he doesn't really have many desires beyond the material comforts of modern American life**.
Unrelated to all of that, I was kind of surprised by how old-fashioned The Godfather felt. Now, if you're reading this blog, you probably know that I mean that as a compliment, but, to clarify: The Godfather really is a "well-made", classical Hollywood movie, with a style that's more like one of the best of William Wyler's than other "Hollywood New Wave" flicks.
*A part of the appeal of gangster movies has always been that we get off on watching people behaving badly - flouting law and common decency because they can. It's always been kind of a tightrope walk: being able to do whatever you want, to take whatever you want, to not have to take shit from anybody, and to solve problems through viscerally satisfying acts of violence are all really part of the appeal of the criminal lifestyle, so, of course, it makes sense for filmmakers to acknowledge this (at the very least), even if it means that a big part of the appeal of the movie will be the way audience members can vicariously groove on the outlaw lifestyle.
**Well, that's not entirely true. The entire series is, in a way, about his spiritual crisis, so he obviously has some desire to resolve that, but he's completely unwilling to own up to the probable causes of that crisis honestly.