Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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There's a conventional wisdom about this sequel to what many regard as "the greatest movie ever made." Despite the hot wind of critical praise, most who've seen it - including my father, a bona-fide Godfather fanatic - consider it to be the ugly brother of the box set. Or at least they did until Godfather III.
I can't imagine a dumber conclusion.
In 1977, Francis Ford Coppola, in a stroke of marketing genius, sold both films to NBC as a miniseries. Calling it The Godfather Saga, he recut the scenes into chronological order. This gave the network what it wanted - a chance to show an edited version of the two films in prime time - and promised the public "15 minutes of extra footage" - which they gobbled up like manna. Never did it occur to them that a movie is about more than chronology and outtakes.
The Godfather, Part II is, in my opinion, every bit as good as the first film, maybe even better. But to see that, you have to appreciate both films for what they were, and to distinguish them from what they weren't. Coppola's "saga" wasn't about stylized violence. It was Shakespearean. It was a story about family. These folks were rich, and they got to do the kinds of fantastic things that fill many "little minds" with glee: screw, murder and talk tough - all while wearing thousand-dollar suits and living in separate wings of a Long-Island mansion. Still, the Godfather was about the ties that bind, and honor among thieves.
To the average Joe Sixpack, like my Dad who went to see this film as many times as I went to see Memento (a movie he hated), nothing was cooler in the original film than the ecstasy of violence, the pocket cynicism, Pacino getting it on with his Italian bride (who has breasts like a goat), or the Byzantine "night of the long knives" at the end, where all loose ends were settled, and settled in the old, Sicilian way.
Say what you will, but for me, all that macho bloodletting and uber-cool man-style is great, but it's only half the story. In fact, it's the stuff you get in the average gangster flick, and it's the reason most of them stink like the fish Luca Brazi sleeps with. It's like reducing a rib dinner to a plate of sauce, or the icing on a chocolate cake. Oh yeah, it's fine stuff, to be sure. But on its own, it's a plate of sweet emptiness, nothing more.
[To bring home my point, I have to say something about the original film that, to someone who hasn't seen it, may be a spoiler. Continue reading at your own risk.]
Most of these folks will tell you that the Godfather ended on a high note, that "business" got taken care of - if you know what I mean. That, I must argue, is one way of looking at it, but it's a view of things that only sees what it wants to see. For one thing, it disregards two scenes in the original film: (1) The one where Don Vito, home from the hospital, learns that it was Michael who killed Solozzo; and (2) the conversation between father and son, in the garden, where Vito reveals the depth of his disappointment. No doubt, Vito was all smiles when he first looked up, from his hospital bed, to discover Michael there with him, promising now to remain by his side. But by the film's final act, it ought to be clear that Vito had hopes for Michael, that he wanted more for his son than the life of an underworld gangster - and so did Michael. We can never be sure whether the rift between father and son - that led Michael to join the marines and leave for World War II - was healed by a father's victory, later regretted, or simply a father's wish misunderstood.
What does matter is that, by the end of the film, Michael has protected his family by joining "the family." And though his deft execution of killer instincts has managed to save both, it is clear that doing so has come at a personal cost. Whoever or whatever Michael Corleone might have been, or might have wanted to be, would forever dissolve in the face of his new obligations as protector of both the family and "the family."
That's what you need to know going into The Godfather, Part II.
This time out, Michael (Al Pacino) will face a bitter truth: That saving "the family" may come at a huge cost to the very family that "the family" was created to protect. This is why the sequel does more than simply push us into new territory - the mob scene of the fifties, with images of Vegas, Tahoe, Miami and the Keyfauver Hearings. Clocking in at three hours and twenty minutes, The Godfather Part II seemingly tells us two stories in one. We get the story-behind-the-story, of how Vito Andolini became Vito Corleone, and ultimately "Don Vito." We also get a kind of "final chapter," as Don Michael faces a grim, final frontier, where the family is assailed by unseen assassins, the betrayal of close associates, political upheaval and a Congressional witch hunt.
But that's conventional wisdom, hitting all the right notes as it plays the wrong tune.
The Godfather, Part II isn't two stories at all. It's one story, told in alternating timelines. Those non-plussed and unimpressed by its continuation of the saga fail to understand that the original was not a snuff film, or even a conventional gangster flick. It was one man's moral struggle to do the right thing in a kind of gritty quagmire. Choosing to save his family forced him to do the one thing he thought he'd never do: join "the family."
This time around, Michael Corleone is faced with even greater moral dilemmas. It's not clear whether the backstory, involving Vito's story, is provided as father-son memory (a kind of flashback Michael would have referred to in making his way through a fog of intrigue) or a kind of ironic contrast. For in the story of Vito (Robert DeNiro) choices are made to protect his world - including a young wife and tender children. Through a crooked path of exigent circumstances, we see a clear line (demarcated through our knowledge of what Vito would become) running from innocence to ruthlessness. That same crooked path of exigent circumstances is at work again, but this time out, the family business, adopted by Michael in the first film, is forging an equally clear path toward a moral choice between family and "the family."
In one film, Michael must avenge a brother. In the other, he must entertain whether to sacrifice a brother for the greater good. In one film, Vito's expresses a wish that Michael might have become someone big, "like a senator," someone who pulls the strings. In the other, Michael is ironically faced with a senator who doesn't like him, and the challenge of pulling his own set of strings - not just with one senator but with a room full of them. In the backstory involving a young Don Vito, the protection of Young Mama Corleone (Francesca De Sapio) is a strong motivation for risking his own life and making valued friends - like Young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and Young Tessio (John Aprea). But as Michael is drawn further into "the business," he can't escape its effect on his relationship with his own wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), or his brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) or an old, respected associate like Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).
Both father and son face fearsome rivals. For Don Vito, it's the hateful Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). For Michael, it's the congenial, Yoda-like Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) who, like Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars saga, cloaks the sheer evil of his intentions beneath a cloud of generosity. For one man, the hypocrisy of America's promise forced the streetwise to become men of action. But for the other, even the suburban coziness of a life far from the gutter gives way to a more sinister reality, that there's no escaping the dirt.
For both men, the stakes couldn't be any higher. Young Vito (Oreste Baldini) watched his father die, then his brother, then his mother (Maria Carta) at the hand of Don Tommasino (Mario Cotone). If he escaped with his life, it was by the skin of his teeth, leaving a piece of unfinished business that could not be left undone by confusing "the best revenge" with "living well." For Michael, all these lessons become second nature the moment the family's new mansion, in Lake Tahoe, is riddled with bullets. Like the image of America, symbolized by the sight of the Statue of Liberty, the hope of a new land - in this case, Nevada - is little more than a dream without power and cunning. Like his father, Michael must "secure the homeland" unequivocally - with a mixture of diplomacy, vigilance and unflinching resolve to act, without hesitation, at the moment of opportunity.
But not every objective can be met by way of the game. One reason the old-timers spit blood when they walked out of this film was its willingness to transgress the line between cynicism and fantasy. If the first film was Shakespearean Tragedy, disguised by the joys of the revenge plot and its final executions, this sequel is more honest, and more emotionally ambivalent. Even if Michael wins, and that's a big "if," there are still some losses that can't be avoided. There's a telling scene, where Michael asks his mother whether his father ever worried that "the family" would cost him his family. What strikes me as significant is not her answer, but the very question itself. It's an indication that in all this backstory, in all these memories of the rise of Don Vito, there may be lots of lessons about how to succeed in "the family business" but nothing that would have prepared Michael for what he is now witnessing: the complete and utter dissolution of his family.
For me, the Godfather, Part II, is more than just an extention of the first film, along with the backstory of Don Vito. It's a more climactic personal struggle, one that ratchets up the perils and is more honest about the true nature of "the business." Ironically, the generation that loved the Godfather - my father's tribe - gnashed their teeth with cries of betrayal. Yet, the idea of switching tones - from "don't you wish you were Michael" to one of disillusionment - is a large part of what made Goodfellas such a terrific break from the myth. If the Godfather crowd wasn't ready, in '74, for such an emotional changing of the gears, conditions were quite different by 1990, when Martin Scorsese broke with the veneration to give us the downside of being a wiseguy. Some will say he could do it because Goodfellas was about a crew much further down in the foodchain - a group of non-Sicilians who didn't get to play with the big kids. Others might say it was a different generation. Sure, but it didn't hurt that headline after headline showed a modern reality quite different from the venerable mythos of the original Godfather saga. In the age of Dapper Dons, and hits that make logic stare, as well as dirty secrets being sold out to the feds and wiseguys going up the river, the classic story couldn't hold. The next generation of mob films would, in fact, look a lot like more Goodfellas than the Godfather. And if so, their model was The Godfather, Part II, a film that dared to switch gears some 16 years before Scorsese would be credited for changing the genre.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age