The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
It’s one thing to say, as many many folks do, that The Godfather Part II is superior to its predecessor — it’s quite another to posit it as a successful sequel to an inadequate original, but for the negligible number of us who find ourselves unmoved by the original Godfather, this is frequently the case. Unlike the loudmouthed soap opera that founded the franchise, Part II is an intelligent study of what corrupts a man over time and how truly precarious any sense of a balance of power is between law and crime in a constantly changing (or crumbling) environment. Free of most of the violent excesses of the first film, it’s also a handy primer on the frustrations inherent to leading a dangerously crooked life one is constantly hoping to correct, though it expects none of us to feel any sympathy for its protagonist, once-bright and promising Michael Corleone, now the all-powerful Don; in fact, it ultimately paints him as a pathetic and depressing creature, a relic of his own past as much as the rest of the world’s. But this sad state of affairs is depicted in a comprehensible, human manner, a credit to writer-director Francis Coppola and author and co-screenwriter Mario Puzo.
Michael’s plight is contextualized by the framing of a parallel story, of his father’s journey to America and coming of age, of how simple needs and comforts and day-to-day realities gave way to petty crime, ultimately to power of an unimaginable size. The violence in Part II is rarely shown but serves an obvious purpose when it is: it puts on display how the act of murder out of supposed necessity gradually becomes murder out of convenience or vengeance, murder out of sheer display of power, murder eventually for commercial interests at the expense of all else, family included. Of course, this film tells that story in three hours, whereas Fernando Meirelles’ City of God would one day tell it in a matter of ten seconds (when Knockout Ned breaks his rule about no killing in order to save a comrade’s life, then begins breaking it, well, because). Michael (Al Pacino, dead-eyed and frightening) closes out the film reflecting with a look of resignation upon how far afield he’s thrown himself, yet it’s clear that the thirst for power, the thirst for blood, is so centrally corruptible to the human spirit that there’s no chance his story his finished, even after his wife has left him in disgust and his brothers are both dead.
The chronologically leaping narrative stands in contrast to the straightforwardness of The Godfather, a film that was also not nearly so calm in its aspirations as this one. With high tragedy and grand mythology, it meant to evoke Gone with the Wind, the vast elevation of a pretty standard “boy meets girl, boy kills everyone” story. That movie’s own thirst for blood and rampant misogyny were rather hard to take as a new Hollywood totem; one wonders how much stronger both films might be if presented together, a format Coppola apparently experimented with for television. I can imagine that the high-intensity seriousness of the first film might make more sense in the grandiose context of this one, wherein we learn how the Don became who he is; even if some aspects of his transition are rather hard to take, the enigmatic, troubling performance of Robert De Niro (surely one of his strongest turns) splendidly captures and humanizes the odd panache of Marlon Brando’s role in the original film. The nonchalance of De Niro as he’s faced with mounting greed and violence under his watch seems almost explicitly a commentary upon the audience of the original film — and by extension, the movie audience today who’ve learned to revel in the bloodshed of films like The Godfather that typically lack the undercutting of the cynical myth presented by the far more mature sequel. They even say the word “Mafia,” forbidden by nervous Mob-tied producers the first time out. (Coppola has reported that his reluctance to make a sequel was tied in large part to his difficulty with the producers and studio on the initial pass.)
What may ultimately separate Part II completely from its predecessor is that the narrative thesis is so much stronger. In a beautiful scene at the end, it is underlined: Pacino fought to exist in a world apart from his Mafia brethren, and in the end, the harder he fights, the less it matters. By the end, he is more ruthless than his father ever was. It finally becomes clear, then, what attracted Coppola to the notion of configuring Mario Puzo’s novel as a critique of American capitalism; such ideas seemed to be artificially injected at various points of The Godfather, including the first line, but here everything seems to point toward the final sense of futility and money-hoarding despair. Michael and his most trusted confidante, Robert Duvall’s hapless lawyer Tom Hagen, find themselves adrift in a world they’re increasingly incapable of understanding, besieged by congressional committees, Vegas corruption, and attempted murder. Rather than a symbol of power, they find themselves becoming a symbol of sleaze.
The downside to all this is that Part II is marginally less of a cinematic coup than its prelude — there are fewer opportunities for Coppola and legendary cameraman Gordon Willis to create visually jarring, iconic pictures; this particular transition is simply not always aesthetically arresting, but when it is — as in, for instance, Fredo’s last scene in the picture — it’s a breathtaking match for an engrossing, intriguing (if episodic) narrative. Without the dead weight of Marlon Brando’s presence, sucking away on orange peels and mumbling his dialogue, you’re left depending on your perspective with either a movie that lacks a soul or a movie that’s liberated from the burdens of celebrity. The acting in Part II is uniformly brilliant — not only do Al Pacino and Robert Duvall reprise their fine characterizations from the first film with game, tense sophistication, John Cazale is given more time to prove the depth in his interpretation of Fredo, and Diane Keaton, as Michael’s long-suffering wife, is no longer saddled with benign sitcom dialogue — by refusing to put up with the Family’s bullshit, and with that intense and disdainful look in her eyes, she transforms a flat role into a defiantly strong feminist character. Her scenes were among the most cringe-inducing in The Godfather; all of her scenes in Part II are among the very highlights.
Coppola’s sense of pacing remains relentless; like the first film, this one flies by despite its 200-minute running time, and that’s even with several plot threads that could very likely have been severed or shortened. Still, there are a number of problems that keep both films from really working as anything but oversized entertainment; they are far less serious films than they attempt, or claim, to be. The posturing, the phony mythology, and the presentation of violence, though muted here, as a moralistic force are problematic, but most bothersome of all is the films’ isolationist streak. I don’t feel that Part II glamorized the organized crime world the way that The Godfather did, not least because it casts a light on the mundane elements of the family business, but it continues to look upon this insular world from deep inside its core, never even venturing out into the hallway. There is little to nothing involving the Mob’s effect on the world at large, and the problem with that is that it allows you to identify with these people without giving you any real reason to doubt them. You don’t ever really see what it is they actually do, you just see them besieged by the feds and their enemies. Which, you know, doesn’t just happen.
In stating that point, however, it gives me some pause to remember how insistent the original film was on portraying mob boss Brando as a “great family man” and filling the movie with eyeroll-inducing Family Togetherness moments, excessively underlining the Don’s contradictions. Part II forgoes this, and that does take some of the sting off its nonchalant perspective of murder and evil; it does fixate upon the falling apart of the family, but in that sense it’s a strong exercise in melancholy, and is careful to show the waste inherent in these frayed relationships. It’s also nice that Pacino plays his character as an unraveling psychopath instead of the ridiculously gentle big lug Brando presented.
Ironically, Pacino’s far more unhinged characterization and De Niro’s muted, subtle read (both believably carried forward from The Godfather but also commenting on and critiquing the earlier story) serve to render the sequel a far more emotional film; its sense of loss, nearly from first frame to last, is nearly aching. If anything, Nino Rota’s excellent but arch music score is almost a distraction. But no matter — there’s much to see and hear in this movie for all its inherited problems. It seems to me that The Godfather Part II‘s greatest achievement, finally, is simply justifying The Godfather‘s existence. You must see the older film to appreciate the follow-up, but it seems a solid reward for the trouble: a sad and strangely alluring portrait of broken people, broken ideals, maybe even a broken country.
[Substantially expanded from a review posted in 2006.]