Goodfellas is the quintessential American film. It defines what it means to be an American since the advent and popularization of cinema. It’s text chronicles the rise and fall of an underworld character, and its subtext chronicles the rise and fall of American consciousness from WWII to the cultural wasteland of 1990. Like M and many of the Films Noir that it influenced, GoodFellas has dual spheres of meaning: a Social Realism on the surface, with an attention to technology and period detail to achieve maximum verisimilitude, and a Fairy Tale underneath, with Expressionistic cinematography, editing that uses New Wave effects, Brechtian distancing devices, a permeable 4th wall, and a protagonist who stumbles through various trials in an attempt to reach a pot of gold.
The convenience of the older Gangster pictures was their Phantasy. A world where the bad guys get it from the good guys: where there is some sense of cosmic order. The only references to positions of power similar to that held by the gangsters in Goodfellas are the President of the United States and movie stars (a distinctly American phenomenon). There is no cosmic order here except whether my violence beats your violence (to paraphrase ‘Shutter Island’). ‘Legitimate’ criminals are those that, like the President (or coke snorting whore diddling movie stars), transgress with the express approval of the patriarchy. This is comparable to the approval Paulie shows when they bring him his cut from the Airline Heist. They hid nothing from him, hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bag for all to see, but Uncle (Sam?) Paulie only wanted deference to his authority in the form of a small percentage. This authority is more valuable than all the gold in the world, as it creates a new world in which all other human values are subsumed to greater concepts of fealty. Money may be the root of all evil, but greed is not the fall-guy in Goodfellas. Greed is a natural drive in the same way lust or wrath or even hunger are ‘natural’ drives. The danger is in a CULTURE that refuses to impose a set of values for dealing with those drives.
We see this lack of concern with greater socio/psychological causes of behavior throughout the film: Paulie’s reaction to the noise outside his store when Henry is pining out his window as a child, Henry’s abuse at the hand of his dad, the handling of Henry’s adultery—the list goes on. Paulie is always concerned with the practical results of someone’s transgression (police attention, loss of profit) but not the spiritual ramifications of a lifestyle excess and indulgence that always leads to those transgressions. He even tells the owner of one of his goons’ favorite restaraunt that he’s “tried” to get them to calm down but they won’t listen. How can you breed animals and then expect them to behave calmly? Of course, this reflects our government’s own inability to follow crime past it’s perpetrator to the root sociological causes.
This subtext takes on even more allegorical flair when Henry’s business turns to narcotics distribution. Paulie understands that Henry “did what he had to do” in jail, but now it must stop. He makes no further inquiries (that we see) into Henry’s business despite the extremely luxurious cash-flow that grants Henry even more opulence than ever before his stint inside. One would have to assume Henry is devoting more and more time to his drug trade and less to ‘legitimate’ criminal enterprises, but there’s still no response from Paul. Why? The only logical answer is that he genuinely doesn’t care. If it was a true ‘offense’ Henry would get taken out of the picture—no question.
This is like the US Government’s response after the CIA’s massive drug dealing was exposed in the ’80s. None. The money made supported the CIA’s secret wars, and that was the only real point: it “had to be done.” in Paulie’s words. There was no legal issue that required punishment even after it was exposed to Congress. In Goodfellas, as in America, there is no such thing as punishment. You don’t pay for your sins. You simply disappear to sin no more, as far as the patriarch is concerned. In the cities non-violent offenders are carted off by the truckload—like all those poor saps whacked after the big heist in the second half of the film; the heist that “had nothing to do with” Henry.
Henry is us, the viewer. Not born into a Mob family or even being 100% Sicilian, he sees them as a child (we’re given an extreme close-up of his eyeball as our first image of the young Henry.) This parallels our exposure to them in the movies. Excluding the direct defense of his wife against the pervy neighbor he never commits a violent act. He’s complicit in them because he ‘loves the life,’ but several times it becomes apparent that he’s not a violent man by nature. Of course very few Americans ever reach the foreign nations that we bomb, plunder, and reorganize, but we are ALL complicit in these wars’ execution. The first murder Henry has this complicity in is committed in 1970—the first year of the decade that saw America’s descent into nihilism reach unprecedented depths. By 1980, it was all over for us. Coke, perfectly symbolizing in text and subtext the rush for success that gripped American society in the 80’s, drives him in search of trouble. The Reagan era’s radical deregulation parallels Henry’s abandonment of olde Mafiosi values and adopting a punk attitude towards his business.
By the end of the film Henry has faded into Witness Protection and he’s symbolically returned to the state of an averagely comfortable suburbanite—the target audience of this and almost every film. Here we are. The afterword, detailing Henry’s inability to break from the privilege that he saw as his natural right, merely confirms a political reality that Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm, Iraq, the War on Terror, Afganistan, and most of all the War on Drugs have all belied: there’s no turning back. The light at the end of the tunnel is a muzzle flash.