Crime–specifically gangster–movies have come a long way since the early days of cinema. From early lurid crime pictures like Howard Hughes’ pre-Hays Code Scarface in 1932 that was heavily edited to avoid glorifying the gangster lifestyle, to the 1983 version starring Al Pacino that made a concerted effort to alternately glorify and condemn a life of crime, to 1990’s Goodfellas, which furiously demands that the gangster lifestyle isn’t cool despite every cinematographic and editing trick that suggests otherwise, to 1994’s Pulp Fiction that most definitely makes it seem like a cool way to make a living, American cinema has had a love/hate relationship with how criminality and organized crime is depicted on-screen.
The Godfather: Part II seems to break from all tradition of how criminality is depicted to suggest that it’s an awful way to make a living but it’s also a life that people inherit. While The Sopranos would detail modern-day mob life in a similar manner, TG:PII codified this depiction of a criminal life, specifically how it relates to family–especially when the criminal life is a family business.
There’s an air of desperation in every frame of The Godfather: Part II, one that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) carries as an increasing burden as the film wears on. Fighting to keep his family safe and their (illegal, violent) business afloat, instead he watches as his family slips from his grasp, eventually losing his wife and brother in the process, all while consolidating power through murder.
To contrast the burden Michael feels in keeping the family business strong, the film intercuts flashbacks of his father Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro), first as a young boy that’s sent to America after his family is destroyed in a gang war in Sicily, and then as an adult trying to keep his family alive through whatever means necessary in the Italian-American ghetto. The film poetically alternates between past and present, with Michael struggling with present difficulties of keeping the vast criminal empire his father spent his life building, and the audience watching as his father struggles to establish the first inklings of what would become that empire in the distant past, undercutting the seeming futility of his father’s ambitions to build something that would keep his family prosperous for generations with the present-day cost of losing the family altogether. What it says about the burden of family, of loyalty, and of human nature is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. While The Godfather establishes the characters, the world they live in, and the stakes involved, The Godfather: Part II transcends its origin story to become not only one of the greatest films of all time but a perfect movie.
The Godfather: Part II – A Perfect Movie
It’s not exactly a controversial opinion to call The Godfather, Part II a perfect movie: after all, it’s consistently ranked as one of the greatest films of all time with an influence that’s felt to this day. And it’s been written about so much in the annuls of film criticism that it almost seems useless to write more about it. But from the vantage point of the early 21st century and with its impact on crime and gangster films being so heavy, there may still be a few stones yet left unturned.
For one, it’s an emotionally brutal movie that can be seen as an example of the consolidation of power of the New Hollywood directors that took over the film industry in the late ’60s and early ’70s. While there were directors who were seeking to make the sort of soft populist fare that has always been a moneymaker for studios, only in their own way (see: Spielberg, Lucas), others rose to challenge convention and social mores in their work, often pushing the envelope as to what could be depicted on-screen. Whether through graphic violence or unconventional–if not antiheroic–characterizations of their protagonists, these directors sought to take the conventions of film and turn them on their ear. Such directors included Robert Altman, Peter Bogdonovich, Arthur Penn, Robert Towne, William Freidkin, and especially Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola came to filmmaking through the UCLA film program, which produced a number of New Hollywood directors, and then through B-movie schlock master Roger Corman’s movie factory, where his first film–Dementia 13 in 1963–would eventually became a cult classic and introduced him to the filmmaking world proper. Working as a screenwriter to pay the bills while fishing for his great project, Coppola rattled around directing studio projects like Finian’s Rainbow and The Rain People before being awarded an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on 1970’s Patton.
From the strength of this award and the buzz growing around him, Coppola wasn’t the first director of choice to adapt Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel The Godfather but in hindsight he was the best choice. Producer Robert Evans specifically chose Coppola for his Italian-American background, hoping to diminish any potential backlash from that community for unfair representation on-screen and with the hope that an Italian-American would honestly chronicle the struggles of members of the community as they found some power in America. And The Godfather is indeed a masterpiece–only overshadowed by its even more refined sequel.
Two movies after The Godfather–the middling The Great Gatsby and the excellent The Conversation–Coppola directed The Godfather: Part II. Having matured greatly between the first and second movie as a director, Coppola controls the medium like a painter controls light: from the semiotics involved in the composition that tell the entire story through visuals alone to the piercing drama on display, in which Michael tears apart his family while ostensibly trying to protect and secure their future, to its complex structure and editing that makes its 2 hour and 20 minute running time fly by, Coppola finally seized his creative ability and created something timeless as a result.
“Every time I put my line in the water I said a Hail Mary, and every time I said a Hail Mary I caught a fish.“
Pathos is the key to The Godfather: Part II. This rhetorical practice, where an appeal to the audience’s emotions conveys an argument and provokes an emotional response from them. While TG:PII is awash with characters who profess logic in their arguments and dealings, they are controlled by their emotions more than anything. When young Vito Corleone consolidates power from his local mob boss, it comes from a place of anger and outrage even though it’s framed as a logical calculation; the same occurs when he tracks down the Sicilian mob boss that murdered his family and kills him in retribution–although it’s argued as a way for him to further strengthen his international stronghold on the olive oil company that’s a front for his criminal enterprise, it’s clearly his want to find revenge against this man.
Michael is portrayed in a similar light, concealing his pathos with logic: while he claims that he’s looking to protect his family and the family business, instead he’s looking to destroy his enemies for crossing him out of furious revenge, and he goes to great lengths throughout the film to ferret out any possible betrayals, ordering the deaths of many of his enemies. His pathos shines through especially when it comes to his family: Kay, his wife, continually communicates her need for a more normal life, and he staunchly ignores her pleas to continue with business as usual. He controls his rage at her until the reveal that she aborted his child, a son, to which he explodes in physical abuse towards her and subsequently locks her out of his life.
He is an emotional man that tamps down his rage and sadness and frustrations until he no longer can. This is clearest in the emotional center of the film, when Michael finds out his brother Fredo–himself a pathetic and tragic figure–has crossed him and had done so out of jealousy and anger that he was passed over in the family. Michael feels great anguish at having to eliminate his brother–but he’s also bound by the invisible forces at work that brought him to where he finds himself as the head of a powerful crime organization, wielding the unconscionable power that has secured his position.
But how could you turn away the mother of your children? Or your obviously damaged sister? Or most of all your own brother? Even if he had plotted against you, how could you? Because business is business and being the head of an organized crime family makes business life. Michael Corleone loses his soul in The Godfather: Part II, and he ironically does it in the name of family–a family he no longer has at its conclusion. The audience watches a tragedy unfold during its run time, where the good, the bad, and the ugly arise from this situation–even if it means ironically losing everything your father spent his life building to secure.
“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.”
Loyalty and family are the heart of The Godfather: Part II, and the ugly conclusions that come from this query are disquieting at best. Michael Corleone isn’t a bad man–well, OK, he is, but he also had a specific vision for his entire family. Unfortunately, family members are also individuals in their own right and will behave outside of one’s expectations. Anyone that has a family is aware of this–that although you think you have the best interest of everyone in a family at heart, their behaviors and actions go against these wishes.
But we don’t murder our family members for going against the family. We don’t beat our wives or kill our brothers or shun our sisters for going against these wishes. Maybe the stakes for Michael’s operation was much higher than most middle-class family’s plans and hopes, which is what drives him to such violent and extreme conclusions, but there is something relatable about his want to see to his family’s best interest at heart.
With the counter-story of Vito Corleone’s early days and rise to power being depicted, specifically the lengths he goes to secure his family’s place in the world, against Michael’s downfall as he attempts to do the same only without success, The Godfather: Part II is constructed as an ultimate tragedy, where every scene seems to conclude with a curtain drawing close on the once-great Corleone family.
The heart of the film’s tragedy, of course, is the death of Fredo. His life and death as depicted on-screen is one of a man punching above his weight and scheming far past his vision. It helps that John Cazale was a rare talent–appearing in just five films over six years, all of which were nominated for Best Picture, Cazale died of cancer in 1978, leaving behind a brief but astonishing body of work.
And Fredo is a masterful character in the chemistry of The Godfather series: an older brother of Michael, Fredo has always been the shame of the family. After his older brother Sonny is gunned down in the first film, he’s passed over for taking over the Corleone enterprise in favor of his younger brother Michael and his role is greatly reduced in the family’s enterprise after Michael takes over. Feeling anger and jealousy over this obvious snub, Fredo stupidly plots against the family, even going so far as to be party to an attempted assassination on Michael.
Of course, since Fredo is not a smart man, he almost instantly gives himself away to his brother, which culminates in Fredo’s eventual murder. It’s a hard pill for the audience to swallow, particularly since Fredo is one of the more likable characters in The Godfather Saga. Sure, he’s an idiot and a traitor, but he also doesn’t know any better. His quiet exchange with his nephew during a fishing expedition, where he innocently says that he prays to St. Anthony with a Hail Mary before casting each line and would be rewarded with a fish on the hook, is both sad and filled with pathos. Fredo may be traitor, but he’s also an innocent. Cazale had the talent to pull such a tricky character off and with style, and his gift was lost to the ages when he passed.
“ I make him an offer he don’ refuse. Don’ worry.”
This film criticism is being written by a straight white middle-class man, so expect the conclusions drawn in this to conform to this perspective. So here it is: the most resonant aspect of The Godfather: Part II is how it speaks to the difficult decisions a person–specifically men–have to make in life.
Being a man is harder than depicted (or represented) in modern society: we kill ourselves a lot. We also tend to live in poverty, and lose custody of our children in divorces, and in general are expected to eek out our existence without complaint or display emotion, lest we’re seen as weak in the eyes of other men and society in general. We’re expected to die in war and work difficult, dangerous jobs and sacrifice ourselves, our bodies, our youth, and our happiness in service of those around us. Maybe not all of us in every situation but enough of us to realize that being a man in this world isn’t the easy path that’s being promulgated these days. To be a man is to face other men, let them beat and harass and belittle you, and keep a dispassionate face the entire time. Being a man is to let others tear apart your dignity for a dollar and never vocalize your frustration or anger about it. It’s being a dogsbody to other men and swallowing your pride for the sake of family and life itself.
The Godfather, Part II depicts this repressed male turmoil in a sympathetic light, which most likely accounts for its lasting influence on male audiences. Vito Corleone finds himself alone in the world as a young boy and claws and scrapes his way to the top to make a better life for his family, whether or not he agrees with what he has to do to get there but simply because he has to do it and it’s the only best option available. Michael is an extreme example of this line of thought, where he blinds himself from the actual needs of his family to do what he thinks will be in their best long-term interest. Both men play as contrasts to each other–one whose struggle is honorable and the other whose struggle delivers a Pyrrhic victory in the end. Men will build the world and the next generation may burn the world their father built to the ground.
Nobody ever asks to be born, and nobody gets to choose their family. The Godfather: Part II reinforces this old adage to an extreme: Michael initially wants to go legit but finds himself circling back further and further into family business until by TG:PII he plunges so far into the family and its purported concerns that he becomes Ouroboros, a snake not only chasing but eating its own tail. Being a man in this world–and having to act like a man that lives up to expectations–is a dangerous proposition; the higher a man climbs in the world, the more tenuous his grasp on the world becomes–and this makes him an increasingly easy target for his enemies. Specifically, other men who will do the same murderous, dishonest, and evil things to keep alive and get ahead in the world.
“Vito Corleone: [picks up baby Michael, kisses him, holds him] Michael, your father loves you very much. Very much.”
For its scope, emotional impact, and sheer plunge into the upsetting, violent, and tragic world of a life of crime, no movie better represents the personal turmoil that living outside of the law brings than The Godfather: Part II. Depicting a family as they start from nothing and turn into one of the most powerful mob organizations in America–and the consequences such a life and position in society brings–is unparalleled in cinema.
While many directors and movies afterwards would ape the conceits and characterizations that TG: PII created and codified, it would be rare when one matched its impact and influence. As stated in the intro, many crime films have found their own unique angle to take on organized crime and a life as a mobster but none match the emotional intensity or pathos that TG:PII reaches.
We could investigate the film further on visual dynamics and themes, color palettes, editing, directorial choices, and any other number of incredible facets the film presents. But these have all been discussed in great detail before by people far more qualified than this humble movie man on these topics. Instead, this article aimed to delve into the more emotional and rhetorical implications of the film.
This is a complex film with a number of interesting avenues to explore, and The Godfather: Part II means a lot of things to a lot of people. The issues and angles discussed here is just one of them. And for its complexity, ability, and sheer influence, The Godfather: Part II is a movie that can be endlessly dissected and discussed and is an easy pick for a perfect movie.