- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Writers: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on the novel The Godfather by Puzo
- Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gastone Moschin, Tom Rosqui, B. Kirby, Jr., Francesca De Sapio, Morgana King, and Dominic Chianese
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#32), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#31); 6 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Francis Ford Coppola, Best Supporting Actor – Robert De Niro, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Al Pacino, Best Supporting Actor – Michael V. Gazzo, Best Supporting Actor – Lee Strasberg, Best Supporting Actress – Talia Shire, Best Costumes)
- Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
The Godfather Part II’s elevator pitch is mostly one of superlatives. Until The Return of the King in 2003, it was the only sequel that had won the Oscar for Best Picture. It also can be credited with the ubiquitous modern trend of putting “2” or “Part 2” on the titles of sequels. The studio tried to get it taken off, because they thought it would put off audiences, but Francis Ford Coppola insisted. But what do we actually think of it, as a movie? Well, I’m not sure it works outside of the context of the first movie, but I also think it’s probably a more complicated, interesting story. There is something deeply interesting to me about, in particular, the way it re-creates the world of early 20th-Century New York. Coppola manages tracking shots through Ellis Island and Little Italy that are absolutely spectacular. As for whether Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) really is a bad a guy, or which mafia dudes are gonna get whacked, yeah, I don’t care. But he is a bad guy, for the record.
It’s not a common thing for a movie to tell two different, entirely separate stories, that don’t dovetail or meet up at some point. Coppola got to basically do whatever he wanted here, to spend all the money, and what he did was make two movies, one a prequel and one a sequel, and then sort of edit them together. One is about young Vito Corleone, fleeing mafia wars in Sicily, arriving at Ellis Island, and eventually becoming the nascent version of the Godfather we saw in the first movie. As a young man, he’s played by Robert De Niro, almost entirely in Italian. Seriously, this movie could have been in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The other movie follows Vito’s son, Michael, over the course of the late 50s, as he holds onto his family so tight that it slips through his fingers. The movie wants us draw parallels between the two, though I would say the two different movies more rhyme with each other than directly comment on each other. Vito’s story works on a basic level as an immigrant story, but Michael’s is overly complicated for me. Ask me to explain what actually happens in it, and I have trouble.
There are, however, a couple basic throughlines, primarily related to the way Michael’s interests come into conflict with the Jewish mob boss Hyman Roth, loosely based on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky. Roth is played by Lee Strasberg, a legendary acting teacher who is credited with teaching “method” acting to the many actors who popularized it, including both Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Strasberg had never had a major film role before, and was actually very nervous, but he is one of the most interesting things in the movie, and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
In one extended sequence, Michael, Hyman, and Michael’s black sheep brother Fredo (John Cazale) get caught up in the Cuban Revolution, all just getting out before things really go to crap on the last few boats and planes. It features the famous bit where Michael kisses Fredo hard on the cheek and hisses “I know it was you, Fredo!” An off-hand remark has shown that Fredo has betrayed him. So Michael waits for his mother to die, then has his last remaining living brother killed while fishing on Lake Tahoe. Over the course of the movie, Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton) has left him, and his relationship with his children is clearly cold and antiseptic. The movie doesn’t just show us he’s ruined his relationship with his family, and that family is the most important thing, it slams us over the head with it.
And that’s what this movie does all the way through. It has some fairly interesting things to say, but I find myself less interested after it screams those things in our face. Early on, we’re shown over and over and over that Michael desperately wants to be like the WASPs who surround them, but they will never really care about him. We watch a sleazy Senator (G.D. Spradlin) repeatedly mispronounce fairly normal Italian names like “Vito,” or the band mockingly break into “Pop Goes to Weasel” after a visiting New York boss (Michael V. Gazzo) tries to exhort them into a tarantella. Later on, Hyman doesn’t just dole out Cuban fiefdoms to his underlings, he does so while handing each of them a piece of his birthday cake. “Everyone gets a piece,” he intones, in case we didn’t catch the metaphor. The Godfather Part II is, I think, the sort of movie that makes someone actively watching feel smart. “A ha! I understand that symbolism!” It’s hardly something that takes multiple viewings to grasp.
On the one level, the whole thing is three and a half hours long, and by the end, have we really learned anything new about anything? I doubt it. If the first film involved Michael’s transformation, this movie is more about his ossification, which is obviously less interesting. And it does feel bloated: my wife at one point was shocked and perturbed that the movie was only halfway over, even though it felt like it had been going on “forever.” But at the same time, it probably has, for me, more great bits than the first movie, and in the subtle way the different halves of the movie work together, is thematically much more interesting. So I think I might say it’s a “better movie” than the first Godfather, as is commonly debated. But at the same time, it sort of forgets to have a center, that it has to be a movie before it can do everything else. Al Pacino glowers his way through the movie, in a barely controlled rage, for three and a half hours, and I’m left wondering what all of this was in aid of.