How Goodfellas nails the romance of Donald Trump
Revisiting the mafia classic on the eve of the Trump presidency
What does it mean to stand by Donald Trump? What does it feel like not just to live in his world, but to love it?
I don't know. I don't live there. But then, neither do millions of the Americans who voted for him. As I try to imagine what they want from his presidency — what it might look like, what Americans might imagine it looks like, when America gets great again — I keep coming back not to the election itself, but to the movies. Specifically, I keep coming back to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.
When we imagine what it would take for us to endorse corruption or collude with violent systems of power, we imagine being presented with obvious choices: kill this person, or spare them; make this deal, or refuse. When we imagine ourselves journeying so far from our moral centers that we wake up one morning to realize we cannot find our way back, we think about characters like Breaking Bad's Walter White or The Godfather's Michael Corleone. We like to believe that we sell our souls all at once, at a finite moment we can point to and say, that was when it happened.
But in reality, where the stories of our lives don't create such reliable arcs, our collusion with violence and corruption often takes the form of acceptance, rather than action. We accept a world made easier for us. We accept the forces that make it easier. And we learn to see this reality as the way things should be — and, after a while, the only way they can be.
If the Trump administration really does make life easier for some Americans, it will be at the expense of a great many others. This is not speculation, but an assessment of Trump's campaign promises. And if Trump makes good on all he promised, then those of us who stand to benefit from his administration, even if we didn't vote for him, will find ourselves in the position not of Walter White or Michael Corleone, but of Goodfellas' Karen Hill.
In Goodfellas, the audience sees the world of organized crime through the eyes of two outsiders: first Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an awestruck kid who starts off as an errand boy and works his way into the heart of the Lucchese crime family; then his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), whose story in the film is less about what she does, or even what she knows about her husband's work, but how much she allows herself to know.
Before Goodfellas, mobster movies lingered over their subjects' violent lives and sudden deaths, but took less care showing audiences why someone might be drawn to organized crime for any reason other than hunger for money and power. Goodfellas shows the mafia's power not just to terrify, but to romance.
The most dazzling example of this comes during the famous Copacabana scene: a two-and-a-half-minute Steadicam shot, choreographed to the delirious strings of the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," in which Henry escorts Karen into his world.
"The whole idea," Scorsese said of the shot, "was that it had to be done in one take, so you don't feel that it was a series of cuts, or that there was a separation between [Henry] and the world that he was trying to get into. The camera flowed through them, and just glided through this world. Just — all the doors opened to him, and everything just slipped away. It was like heaven. And then, to emerge king and queen — this was the highest he could aspire to."
The highest Henry Hill could aspire to is not that much. It's being warmly greeted by everyone, known by everyone, and respected by everyone — at least so long as he keeps pressing $20 bills into their palms. It's having a table assembled for him and his date, as if by magic, as everyone else waits in line. It's being treated slightly better than everyone else, because he has paid for it, and can punish anyone who doubts his right to such treatment. It's not much, but it's everything.
And to stand beside such a man and see the world bend to his will, even in such tiny ways, is to be wooed. In a way Martin Scorsese could never have imagined, the Copacabana shot distills not just the experience of Karen Hill or the average mob wife, but that of the Trump voter. We like to think such little things won't sway us. We're often wrong.
Imagine being Karen Hill in this scene, and try not to love it. Try not to feel safe. Try not to feel excited. Try not to feel aroused. The world belongs to your man. The world is yours, and you don't even have to reach for it. You don't have to tell anyone — don't even have to tell yourself — how much you want, and what you want, and what you might do to get it.
Just hold your thumb and forefinger apart to show your man how much money you need today. Just watch as everyone works hard to please him, and don't ask whether they do so out of love or fear.