The Godfather Part II (1974)
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
It’s not a big surprise to say The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece of American cinema. It just simply is. This is a director doing the best work of his life surrounded by magnificent performers and working with a very literate & polished script. When you have these sorts of elements, you will end up with a movie that resonates with audiences. I don’t think it can be understated how thoroughly Coppola reshaped American film with his work in the 1970s. This is a template for movies still coming out today and the precursor to the prestige television that is so common on streaming platforms.
For the sequel, Coppola and author Mario Puzo deliver both a prequel and a sequel in one. Part of the film follows Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) from his troubled childhood in Italy through his rise to power on the streets of New York City. We watch him commit his first murder, which topples a local mafia chieftain, which grows both his family at his home and his family at work. The continuation of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) story begins in 1958 when the new Godfather has relocated his operations to Lake Tahoe to be closer to Vegas. He attempts to coerce a sitting senator, which goes poorly. Michael ignores the pleas from Frank Pentangeli, one of his dons back on the East coast. Even more, trouble comes in the form of Miami mob boss Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who appears to attempt an assassination on the Godfather. As world events transpire, Michael feels he’s drifting further from his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and wife, Kay (Diane Keaton).
1974 wasn’t a slouch year for movies in any manner. It saw the releases of Chinatown, A Woman Under the Influence, Young Frankenstein, Scenes from a Marriage, Alice Doesn’t Live Here, and so many more. The fact that The Godfather Part II stood so high among so many other great pieces of cinema is a testament to the craft that went into it. The scale is one element that might go unnoticed. The film spans decades and has sequences set in Lake Tahoe, New York City, Miami, Sicily, Havana, and Washington D.C. It never feels like we’re being pulled around the world, and the story flows as Michael attempts to keep all the plates spinning while it’s clear everything is falling down around him.
As I said in my review of The Godfather, I could devote an entire year’s worth of blog posts to analyze aspects of the movie and still have so much more to say. One thing to note is that you could hypothetically watch Part II without seeing the first film. I believe Coppola establishes the characters well enough that the story flows without needing too much of the background. That can’t be said about a lot of sequels. Part II is a more meaningful picture in the context of the first one, so watching both will add to the experience but isn’t required. I want to applaud the fact that a single movie was made that serves as both a prequel & sequel, something no studio would allow today. We would get three+ more movies out of it and a streaming series spotlighting Hyman Roth on Paramount+. As the cliche says, less is often more, which we have here. Not stretching the Godfather franchise out into a thousand granular spin-offs is good.
One of the most significant themes in Part II is how power alienates the powerful. The entire film culminates with Michael being alone; his lieutenants are the only people close to him. He’s aggressively pushed away his wife and thoroughly broken ties with Fredo and Tom. Coppola doesn’t want us to view Michael as a cold, distant figure, though, and chooses to flashback to a moment before the first film where young Michael tells his siblings about joining the military to serve in World War II. This moment of nostalgia links the prequel and sequel elements, spotlighting the family Vito built so full of love and life and pointing to a time when Michael believed in something when he had a chance to escape the family business.
Coppola differentiates the simplicity of Vito’s rise from the troubling complexity of Michael’s situation. Vito set up an olive oil importation front and works on a comparably smaller scale. Michael has grown that family business into something so unwieldy that he’s lost touch with the people he needs to stick close to. There is a moment where the father and the son are connected through revenge. Vito returns to Italy, where he hunts down the don who murdered his mother and eliminates him. Michael turns on everybody, still carrying the chip on his shoulder from the first film, and he certainly has a right to. His enemies have escalated their actions, and he is responding in kind. What complicates things even further is that “enemy” is a tricky term to define in the context of this world. Hyman Roth is a long-time business associate of the Corleones, and he even meets Michael when the younger man comes to visit Miami. The film is not interested in conventional two-dimensional villains but rather in reality’s problematic moral gray areas.
When looking at the two films, they begin in such a beautiful, warm place (Connie’s wedding) where we meet every character and gather to celebrate. But, by the end of Part II, it is just Michael, a streak of gray in his hair, sitting alone in the autumn air, staring off into the distance contemplating his life. There is such a palpable sense of loss in Pacino’s eyes, and it is a reminder that despite his boisterous acting persona, he was a masterful face actor, able to communicate so much through his eyes and reactions without speaking a word. The Godfather Part II is a contemplation on how becoming a “great man” means tearing away at your humanity, cultivating the ugliest parts of yourself, and ultimately losing those elements of life that make it worth living.