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The Godfather is a family tragedy and The Godfather Part II is an American one. It seems impossible to talk about one film without talking about the other, and so perhaps the best way to discuss both is to compare the two.
Put another way, The Godfather is about the failure of a patriarch to keep his son out of his own sordid business, while The Godfather Part II is about the failure of a patriarch to lift his family out of his father’s sordid business. Part II is meaningless without its predecessor, but its predecessor isn’t half as impactful without seeing what becomes of Michael Corleone ultimately.
This, in its own way, is the answer to a trivial but unavoidable question: which Godfather movie do you prefer? The correct answer is the first. There should be no debate. But only because it seems impossible to consider the second without the context of Vito Corleone’s death and Michael’s unplanned succession.
The Godfather Part II is about sharp contrasts. There is a hard edge to everything Michael Corleone does, and there is a romantic softness to Vito Corleone’s origin story – his ascent to influential New York City crime boss. Somewhere in between tonally lies the film that puts all of this in context.
There are a mere 10 shifts between Michael’s present and his distant past in them. Thankfully, not one of them directly references the other -- no pedantic slow fades from father to son. Director Francis Ford Coppola leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions and make their own comparisons, and … well … how can you not?
There’s a sepia hue and at-times humorous quality to Vito’s story. He essentially backs in to a life of crime by agreeing to hide the guns of a young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) in his apartment. Nothing seems to happen with intention; everything is borderline happenstance. How else to explain Vito’s almost reluctant theft of Oriental rugs when Clemenza takes him to a faceless “friend’s” house as a way of repaying him for stashing his guns?
Vito Andolini arrives in America, escaping a death sentence from a local Don in Sicily, he is described as “9 (years old) and dumb-witted.” He stares out the window at the Statue of Liberty for three months riding out a medical quarantine, fortunate to have made it out of Sicily alive, and just as fortunate to have a nice view from his Spartan quarters on Ellis Island.
There’s almost nothing accidental about anything Michael does (except for his discovery of Fredo\'s betrayal). Throughout Part II, he is cavorting with legitimate power brokers in both Cuba and the United States with the mission of making the Corleone family completely legitimate.
Young Vito is staring at the symbol of American freedom as the film opens. Middle-aged Michael, meanwhile, is rubbing elbows with a U.S. Senator who can’t even pronounce his last name right. What can change in a generation …
Michael’s quest for legitimacy is something that his father probably would not have cared about.
This is the sharpest contrast of all in Part II. Vito Corleone – insular family man that he was – proclaims “I never lie to friends,” and means it. Hyman Roth, the untrustworthy businessman with whom Michael is partnered in Cuba, brags that “his partners always get paid.” Michael and Roth might end up as adversaries, but that’s not because Michael subscribes to a different code than Roth. No, it’s because partners aren’t getting paid as they make their plans in Cuba. It’s because they are after the same thing at the expense of each other, rather than any true philosophical disagreement.
Even as his outsider status is reinfoced by that Senator who can’t pronounce his name – Sen. Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) expresses his disgust with the Corleone family for “trying to pass [themselves] off as decent Americans" – Michael is embracing wholeheartedly a distinctly American kind of graft.
He has gone West to Lake Tahoe and is essentially fashioning an all-new identity for himself, if not for his family. Given the devastating end results in his personal life – Kay’s abortion, the death of his brother Fredo – it is fair to wonder whether everything is worth it.
But it is simultaneously and breathtakingly easy to see that journey as distinctly American. Michael Corleone might not be wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, but he is a latter-day apparition of an American myth, one which is thoroughly shattered by the end of Part II. He wants to be equal parts his father and the Man With No Name, and he ends up quite a distance from either.
I’ve thought for some time that the easiest way to explain the American Dream – the opportunity that America represents – is that Americans are driven to leave their children better off than they are.
The Godfather Part II paints a subversive picture of that dream -- that drive. There’s a power-hungry cynicism to Michael Corleone’s machinations. He hides behind the desire to go “legitimate,” presumably for the benefit of his son Anthony, whose confirmation provides us with our first glimpse of the Corleones\' move West. But Anthony hardly seems central to Michael’s life. His business interests distract him so much that Kay is even able to abort their unborn child without his knowledge. Family is everything to Vito, and it is a hollow façade for Michael – a talking point as he consolidates power.
Perhaps the strongest juxtaposition of father and son comes as young Vito bounds across tenement rooftops on his way to surprise and murder Don Fanucci. The tension and pace of the whole scene is a clear nod to the infamous bathroom scene in The Godfather. There is the noise of the neighborhood festa and the eerie, quiet calm of Michael’s confrontation with Sollozzo. But there are also the parallels – both men are protecting their family and their own interests.
Yet, it is the contrasting motivations of these two characters that lingers longest. Vito is grabbing something he has never had before – freedom from a domineering and unfair man to whom he must pay tribute. Michael is protecting what his father has already achieved, and nothing more.
Perhaps that’s why simply being the next Don of the Corleone family is not enough for Michael. He’s after something his father never even dreamed of. What is legitimacy anyway, in this case, but the freedom to do more than your father ever could by shedding his very identity altogether?
The Godfather Part II ends with Michael all alone. His mother – the last tangible, direct link to his father – has passed. Both of his brothers are dead. Connie is a persona non grata. He is alone in his compound out West, having reset his family’s trajectory entirely.
This was apparently a long time coming.
Just before that final shot of Michael in his compound, there is the flashback to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor – coincidentally also the day of Vito’s 50th birthday. Michael tells Sonny that he has joined the Marines Corps, which sets his older brother off.
“Your country ain’t your blood,” says an apoplectic Sonny.
“I have my own plans for my future,” replies Michael, cool as ever even then.