“My father taught me many things here—he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
The Godfather was a cultural phenomenon when it came out in 1972 for many reasons. It was extremely well-written, and the cinematography and acting were great. Something that’s lost on modern viewers is how revolutionary the concept was. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect until 1968, prevented things like violence and sex in movies, but it also forbid sympathetic portrayals of criminals. Some movies, like 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, were quick to make use of this newfound freedom and featured criminals as the protagonists; but none had gone into as much depth as The Godfather. Showing a crime family as a real family, with family dinners and drama, had never been done before.
Two years later, The Godfather: Part II came out and delivered more of the same: fascinating character study and the smallest details of what had become the greatest crime empire in America. Once again directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, and Robert Duvall, this is a sequel that’s every bit as good as its predecessor—some say even better. It’s almost required to draw comparisons between the two, so here’s my take: the story was tighter and the quotes more memorable in the original, but the sequel goes into greater depth with the characters and has more emotion. For what it’s worth, I actually preferred the sequel, although both are amazing movies.
The film is interesting in that it’s both a sequel and a prequel: it shows Michael Corleone now at the helm of his father’s business in the 1950s, but it also shows young Vito Corleone, the original Godfather, as he immigrates to America and begins building his criminal empire in the early 1900s. We see Vito win the respect of his entire neighborhood, which sets the groundwork for the small empire he had in the first movie. We see Michael greatly expand his empire across the entire nation, and even into volatile Cuba. Both stories are done well and weaved together expertly.
I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies.
The Godfather: Part II is an amazing character study for both Michael and Vito, and showing both stories simultaneously shows a sharp contrast between them, which actually helps further define both characters. The two are very different men. Vito’s top concern was his family, and he built his empire not only on power, but also respect, negotiation, and taking care of the people close to him. Forty years later, Michael rules the international empire with an iron fist. He’s accomplished far more than his father did, but risks losing his family, even when he doesn’t want to let them go. The contrasting views of family are really at the heart of this film, as is shown brilliantly in the ending scene.
The film throws a lot of plot at you and it can be hard at times to follow exactly what’s going on. Don’t worry: it all comes together in the end. As a result, though, the film definitely feels epic in scope. The range of emotions is similarly vast. Vito’s growth in the early 1900s is engrossing, even inspiring. Even as he builds a criminal empire, he seems heroic. Michael is very much a flawed hero, trying to balance family, crime, and international deals, and beginning to come apart at the seams. I got the impression he doesn’t want all the responsibility he has in this film, but he feels bound to it, ensnared by his success.
Much like its predecessor, The Godfather: Part II is a spectacular piece of cinema and essential viewing for just about everybody. Surprisingly, for a crime film, this one can actually feel a bit slow at times, which may lose some viewers, and there are a few bits of graphic violence which earn the movie’s R rating. But this is a brilliant film with much to offer viewers of many different backgrounds. If you haven’t seen this one yet, it’s pretty much required viewing.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Genres: crime, drama