Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Wisdom of Don Corleone

If you happen to be around my age – that would be 60, at the moment – it’s entirely possible that you’ve seen too many movies, and that some of them have clouded your perception of real life. Movies often simplify what life usually complicates. For me, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is one of those movies.

Here’s the set-up.

The Corleone “family” is at war. The Godfather, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) has been gunned down by members of a rival family. He survives. His son, Michael (Al Pacino), avenges the assassination attempt and is sent to Sicily to hide out. Santino (James Caan), the oldest son, is ambushed and killed.

Seeking peace, the recovering, but ailing Don Corleone calls a meeting of the bosses of the five major families where he announces that Michael will be returning to the U.S. and if anything should happen to him, he will “blame people in this room.”

(I’ve left out some details, but you’ve seen the movie, so you’re with me so far. If you haven’t seen it, you’re probably in the wrong blog.)

The Corleones believed that it was Don Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), who initiated the war. He is present at the meeting, and so is Don Barzini (Richard Conte), who calls for mutual trust. Compromises are made and an understanding is reached. Or so it seems.

As a result of the meeting, Don Corleone now knows that it was not Don Tattaglia who led the strike against him.

“Tattaglia’s a pimp. He never’a could’ve outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day…it was Barzini, all along.”

I’ve seen the movie several times, and I’ve studied that scene for clues. What was it that Barzini said that gave him away? Damned if I can tell. It must have been something in Barzini’s voice or demeanor. But as subtle as it was, the old Don read it like a message on a billboard. Can we call that wisdom?

I do.

Imagine that decades ago, when the game was still winnable, that a semi-retired corporate Don stays behind at the end of a board meeting, walks up to the CEO of GM and, with his hand on the executive’s shoulder, says: “Roger, it’s not Ford; they can’t beat us at this game. It’s the Japanese.”

In a later scene, Vito Corleone is advising Michael, the new Don Corleone, when he says this:

“So…Barzini will move against you first. He’ll set up a meeting with someone you absolutely trust…guaranteeing your safety and at the meeting, you’ll be assassinated.”

That’s what I would call valuable information. And, just to be a little more specific:

“Now listen…whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting…he’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”

Michael had damn well better not forget that, because the old Don will die soon – in fact, in the very next scene. They didn’t have executive coaches back then, so Michael will be totally on his own, and one mistake away from not making it out of his rookie season.

Later in the film, we are not surprised when a trusted soldier (a captain, actually), Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda) approaches Michael, and says:

“Mike could I have a minute? Barzini wants to arrange a meeting. He says we can straighten any of our problems out…”

Too bad for Tessio. Michael has been waiting. Tessio, not Michael, will soon sleep with the fishes.

Imagine that a year or eighteen months ago, wise old Dons at AIG, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the U.S.Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the country of Iceland (to name a few) had stepped from the shadows and said, "We’ll be in BIG TROUBLE unless we make THESE CHANGES right now.”

And that’s what movies have done to me. There clearly are not enough Don Corleones to go around. There were individuals wise enough to see trouble ahead and individuals powerful enough to effect change, but were there none with both the wisdom and the power?

How exactly did the real smart guys at the real big companies and the real important government agencies manage to screw up every economy in the civilized world? There are real brilliant analysts who are right now figuring all of this out. No, they haven’t quite done it yet. It’s all tangled up. There are all those nasty little knots that have to be pulled undone with fingernails and teeth, before all the strings can be neatly laid out on the table.

As I see it, too many of those too-big-to-fail companies were intelligence-heavy and wisdom-lite. They needed fewer smart guys and more wise guys. You don’t get wisdom with your MBA.

Yes, I know. Murder and extortion are bad. Real bad.

It’s just a movie. Movie makers can serve up a character that is more bad than good, flesh it out with the likes of a Brando, and make us like him. Real life mobsters kill for convenience and will take your business, if they want it. Movies, like The Godfather, attempt to take us for a ride. Not everyone will go for the ride. They will refuse to be manipulated.

Not me. I enjoy being taken for a ride. Providing… I get back in one piece.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. It made sense of both the movie (where I often get lost) and also good parallels to the crisis. Looking for some more of the Don's wisdom myself :-)


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