In an age where sequels just weren’t made that frequently, it’s a bit amazing that the Godfather Part II was made at all, given director Francis Ford Coppola’s contentious relationships with his studio executives. But in an ironic twist, the suits gave Coppola the artistic freedom and budget he wanted as well as the go-ahead to make a separate picture that had been an otherwise unfinanceable passion project. In short, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and thus closed the circle between life and art imitating each other. We should all be thankful that they did; for in surpassing its predecessor, The Godfather Part II also became one of the greatest movies ever made.
The story take place about a decade after the conclusion of the Godfather; Michael Corleone sits as the don of his crime family. He seeks to move things out to Nevada and pursue a future in gambling as a much less risky endeavor than the freewheeling bloodbath that is the New York underworld. But when he angers one of his underbosses over a turf war back East, Michael prompts a retaliatory attempt on his own life, for which he marshals his considerable resources to unravel. All this, amid an ambitious effort to invest heavily in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, dealing with the rise of federal task forces to eradicate organized crime, and betrayal within his own dwindling and decaying family. Throughout the story, we see interludes from the life of Michael’s father Vito as he leaves Italy, scrapes by in New York, enters a life of crime, and becomes a figure of legend as he builds his own crime family and takes revenge on all those who ever wronged him—including those who forced Vito to flee to the States in the first place.
To call this movie ambitious is a bit of an understatement. Telling not one, but two sprawling family epics about the rise and tribulations of the Corleone mafia empire requires precise use of every one of this movie’s 3:20:00 run time, and it does not disappoint. We see career-defining performances from both Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in what is widely considered not just an unforgettable story about organized crime, but of the Italian-American immigrant experience itself. This is a movie that is not so much seen as it is witnessed.
Once again, the central theme is how power and family often aren’t entirely compatible. In young Vito, we see a man who enters crime because he’s a poor family man at the end of his rope. That he excels at crime enables him to build the family business he always wanted and to provide for his loved ones. It just involves shooting people in the head and putting the fear of God into anyone who stands up to him. But as brutal and uncompromising as Vito is—there is one memorable scene where he bullies a landlord into keeping an old woman as a tenant, just to show he can be kind as well as cruel—we see why he does what he does, and it earns him some sympathy, if not justification. After all, who wouldn’t kill to feed their children, if pushed far enough? When we see Vito shed blood for the first time, we see a man willing to get his hands dirty for the sake of his children, and comes off as less sinister than those he usurps.
All of this juxtaposes with the present story of Michael’s efforts to expand the power of his family beyond even Vito’s wildest imagination, showing a kind of Icarus-level ambition that involves threatening United States senators to their face and defying Congressional subcommittees. As Michael navigates his treacherous professional world—something he does supremely well, just like his old man—he destroys the one thing Vito would have done any of this for: his family. Alienating his wife, children, and even his estranged sister is nothing compared to how he makes an enemy of his simpleton brother, the one guy he otherwise could have counted on to never raise a finger against him. In a key moment, Michael realizes Fredo engineered a failed attempt to assassinate him, so at a New Year’s celebration, Michael kisses Fredo and tells him that he knows he was betrayed, and by whom. From then on, we’re counting the moments to when Michael will exact his revenge, for we already know he is a man without mercy, and who has given himself so totally to the business of building and ruling an empire that he has forgotten why he or his ancestors ever did it in the first place.
At the climax, Michael orders the deaths of his rivals to ensure his criminal supremacy. But among this, he lures poor Fredo out onto Lake Tahoe to join the fishes, all the while, watching from shore. Does Fredo know what fate awaits him, or is he too thick to see what danger he’s in? it doesn’t matter. Michael moved on him in a way anyone in his family would have condemned, if only there was anybody left to condemn him. His is the kind of outcome only a true tyrant can savor, for he knows how easily he can lose what he has built, and the means by which he might lose it. Michael achieves victory but gets no peace, nor does he deserve any.
The moment of truth shows Michael sitting alone, remembering a scene before all of this, right after Pearl Harbor, when he informs his family he is dropping out of college to join the Marines. Everyone in the family recoils at Michael’s decision except for Fredo, who supports his brother. It is a significant moment on which a family’s history pivots, but the most important thing isn’t what happens before or after, but that once upon a time, there was a family at all. No longer.