Why is Goodfellas (1990) a good movie? Put differently, in keeping with the theme of these past few weeks, why does the American Film Institute (AFI) rate it as the 92nd greatest American film of all time? If you look at the list that I have been going off of, it does not explain why it has ordered them in this manner. There is a blurb at the top of the page about lack of diversity and how it keeps updating these rankings in order to make up for an earlier lack thereof. More personally, I know many people who love the film. Many friends have raved about it, and I hear radio personalities often talk glowingly about it. From a technical aspect, many focus on the tricky tracking shots its director, Martin Scorsese, uses in a couple of scenes. It is no small feat to get so many moving parts to work in concert all in one shot. As for me, the movie is a load of crap and I will now spend the next couple of paragraphs explaining my feelings.
Few movies that begin with a murder as does Goodfellas is likely to be enjoyable for me. This monstrous act is carried out by James “Jimmy” Conway (Robert De Niro), Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). What makes this and what proceeds all the worse is that it is based on a true story. The person who brings you the rest is Henry, who recounts his life as a member of the mafia. He had wanted to be in this life from the time the time he was a boy (Christopher Serrone). Though he is half Irish, he lives across the street from a taxi stand that is the base of operations for mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Soon, Henry is ditching school to became an errand boy for Paul. To Henry, it means he has the ability to do whatever he wants, even if he has to take a few beatings from his father. He also earns his reputation with Paul and associates by being arrested but not saying a word before the judge. As Paul explains soon after this, there are two prize qualities for a person in Henry’s position: you never rat on your friends, and you always keep your mouth shut. As Henry moves up in the organization by following these principals, he is introduced to Jimmy and Tommy. They become the two fellow criminals he hangs around the most, and they live out the life of doing whatever they please to whomever they please. Paying off the police, they mainly steal anything on which they can get their hands, including money that comes through the local airport. They are also involved in each other’s personal business, such as when Henry agrees to go along on a double date with Tommy so that he can, er, impress her. The person with whom Henry is set up is Karen (Lorraine Bracco). Though their relationship does not get off to the best of starts as he is preoccupied with his illicit activities, she is attracted to him nonetheless. Indeed, when he does not show up for a second date, she tracks him down and demands to know what happened. Him placating her turns into steady dating, which becomes marriage, despite the fact that he has to lie about being partially Jewish. That is not the only falsehood at the heart of their relationship. Though he does not openly admit it at first, it is clear to her that what he does for a living is illegal, and she goes along with it. He gives her everything she could want, and this is all she needs to remain satisfied. What a wonderful couple, right? Well, eventually he starts sleeping with other women, as all mafia guys appear to do, which is one thing she cannot tolerate. Even still, eventually she stops caring about that, too, especially when she starts getting into drugs. I am getting ahead of myself. Did I mention they have two kids? Anyway, we have caught up with the opening scene, which involves the death of a so-called “made man.” If you care enough to find out what that means, go ahead and look it up. Shortly after this, Henry and Jimmy are sent by Paul to rough up a guy who owes him money in Florida. This leads to a brief stay in prison when their victim’s sister identifies them as the culprit. It is while Henry is incarcerated that he is introduced to drug trafficking. This is something that Paul specifically warns him against when Henry is released from custody. Further, the boss tells his underling to keep watch for this kind of enterprise, and to report any that is found. Henry agrees to do so, but carries on doing it anyway. He also brings on Jimmy and Tommy to help in the narcotics trade. Everybody is making more money than they know what to do with, and this is before they carry out the largest cash robbery in American history, hitting the airport once more. It is the zenith of Henry’s criminal career. After this, people begin dying. Jimmy is largely the one doing the killing as he is paranoid about other people in on the heist selling out to the authorities. There is also Tommy’s execution as payback for the murder that begins the film. Meanwhile, the federal government begins to close the loop on Henry and Karen, who is also involved in her husband’s illegal affairs. At the end of a chaotic day involving the movement of cocaine and guns, Henry is arrested outside of his home. He is able to get out on bail, but Jimmy and Paul both assume that he has decided to inform on the mafia. At length, this is what he decides to do, taking the witness protection program after testifying in court as to the crimes committed by the mob. A post-script before the end credits roll states that Henry still had one more run-in with the law, shortly before Karen separates from him.
Why do I not like Goodfellas? What is there to like? All the fancy camera work in the world cannot change the fact that there is not one sympathetic character in the film. I feel for my fellow man, and I try to look at everyone, including the kinds of people you see in the movie, as Jesus would view them. At the same time, film has the opportunity to present a more idealized version of society. Yes, the movie is based on a true story, and real life is anything but idealized. Yet, like Faith, I prefer to be inspired to live a better life. This is why I worry about the amount of love there is for this film. I am not your judge. Only God is, or will be. Ask yourself, though, what it says about yourself if you enjoy this movie? Is there something in you, like Henry, that longs to be able to be a gangster and be able to literally get away with murder? You can like it for the way it is shot and the performances. Joe Pesci won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role. I am willing to bet that he set a record for the most swear words said in an Academy Award winning performance. Essentially, he was rewarded for vulgarity. That is telling. Interestingly, he followed up this film with an infinitely better one in Home Alone (1990). Watch that one instead of Goodfellas.
I understand that Goodfellas is a gangster film. This genre goes back to the early days of cinema, an example being The Black Hand (1906). Such movies respond to a desire for violence to which Henry spoke early on in the movie. Abraham Lincoln said it best when, at his first inauguration and with the Civil War looming ahead, he attempted to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” It relates to that which God puts in all of us to do better. In this case, you can do better than watch this film.