Charles Kane and Michael Corleone: Twin Sons of Different Mothers

The Godfather: Part Ii Al Pacino Michael Corleone In Chair 24x36 Poster

Two movies that almost always wind up on any top ten list of all time greatest films are Citizen Kane and The Godfather. While at first those two may seem to have precious little in common other that they are fine examples of the art of cinema, when you add The Godfather, Part II to the list and analyze the arc of the main character in these two stories of powerful men, it becomes quite obvious that there are distinct parallels to be drawn between Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone. And since these two are the titanic and towering central figures of their respective tales, might there not be something to the concept that what draws audiences to the two timeless classics has quite a big to do with the psychological invitation to our collective psyche that resides in the persons of Kane and Corleone?

Consider the stories of Charles Kane and Michael Corleone are both tragedies in which men who have previously shown a propensity and desire to do good are drawn inexorably toward corruption of that goodness into a twisted perversion in which they both seem to actually believe that their malevolence and wickedness is all done in the name of a final end that is anything but wicked? The iconic image of little Charley Kane’s lost innocence is that sled with the word Rosebud emblazoned across it. Plucked from a homespun, Norman Rockwell dream of middle class nirvana, Kane’s trajectory is both upward and downward. Given undreamt-of wealth, he at first has the young man’s ambition to do well before this gives way to the old man’s ambition to create from his wealth untold dividends of power. Michael Corleone is first seen as returning war hero who explicitly lets his girlfriend know that his family’s life is not the same as his future. His Rosebud is his own fractured jaw; the police sergeant’s unwise sucker punch may be viewed—along with the necessity of Sonny Corleone being violently removed from the stew—as the event that initiates the forward momentum that turns Mikey from the “Ryan’s Hope” of the Corleone family into just another bloods thirty thug. Both Citizen Kane and The Godfather become Aristotelian tragedies in which the main character suffers due to his own hubris.

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Kane begins as a newspaper man willing to lose money in an effort to upset tradition and the system. By the end, Kane is himself the very epitome of the system. Power, it is said, corrupts and absolute power…well, name two other film characters who symbolize the fruition of that cliché any better than Charles Foster Kane or Michael Corleone. Both men were born with one destiny seeming to be theirs, but events and their own psychological reaction to those external stimuli set them down a path toward another destiny. Interestingly, those alternative destinies are not entirely at odds with the original expectations. Both Kane and Corleone early on establish themselves as independent, intelligent thinkers, while also expressing a certified self-centered perspective toward the world that is often associated with both leaders in the spheres of the benevolent and malevolent. Charles Foster Kane’s gleeful appropriation of his own money in the service of sticking it to the man eventually gets corrupted, but to the end he justifies his actions as being in the service of the good, even if that good is directed toward nobody other his wife. Similarly, Michael Corleone justifies his most brutally violent actions by protesting that he had to do those things to protect his wife and family.

It is certainly fascinating to consider the possibility that both Citizen Kane and the Godfather saga have entered into the psyche of moviegoers precisely because both the main figures of these movies are so similar and because those similarities speak to someplace buried deep within our own psyches. After all, how many of us ever live out our adolescent dreams? How many of us lead lives in adulthood that can be viewed in some ways as a corruption of those innocent dreams of making the world a slightly better place?