There is little to be written about the first and second Godfather movies that hasn’t been written before. They are the most popular movies in American culture, having revolutionized a Hollywood system that was dying off in the early 1970s and presenting a unique picture of not only mob life, but a story of America itself.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) never wanted to be a part of his father, Vito’s (Marlon Brando), illegal mob business. A war veteran of World War II, he is in love with a pretty girl, Kay (Diane Keaton), and has his whole life in front of him. He is still attached to his family, his hot headed brother Sonny (James Caan), his meek brother Fredo (John Cazale), his adopted brother Tom (Robert Duvalle) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). When his father is shot and nearly murdered, it is up to Michael to save the family. By voluntarily killing his father’s near-assassins, Michael is thrown down a dark road that leads him to becoming the next head of the Corleone crime family.
By the start of The Godfather Part II, Michael has taken complete control of the empire and eliminated the other rival families. When a plot against his own life is foiled, he seeks those responsible, a path that draws him back to his brother, Fredo, and a very difficult collision between business and family. Haunted by the strength of his father, we are also presented with a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and his rise to power, contrasted with Michael’s own moral condemnation.
The Godfather is its own complete film, presenting a singular story of son supplanting father, but The Godfather Part II enhances the overall themes of power corrupting, the love of family driving us to do horrible things and adapting to a new society. Viewed together, they are a remarkable portrait of American life.
Director and writer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter Mario Puzo and cinematographer Gordon Willis create something with the Godfather films of utter brilliance, completely defining a genre. At a time when the old Hollywood system was giving way to the film auteur of the 1970s, The Godfather merged both old and new styles, creating the modern gangster film and defining how new story structure, with its violence and its individual mark, could be constructed in a studio system. It launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan and gave new birth to Marlon Brando. Almost overnight, The Godfather became a sensation, and it’s legacy was firmly cemented forever with The Godfather Part II.
There are so many different interpretations of the two films. It has probably been analyzed more than any other work of cinema. Some see it as a representation of how evil infects our souls and destroys us, the devil represented by the mob. Others note how similar to mythology the film is, Zeus represented by Vito and the son, a Hercules, the Corleones literally gods on Mount Olympus. Others note how Michael loses sight of what his father accomplished and becomes so obsessed with preserving the Corleone legacy that he destroys it, thereby linking how the next generation destroys the previous one, how the stability of the American family in the 1940s and 1950s is destroyed by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. And still others look at the immigrant story, the failed promise of an American dream (represented by Vito running away from a bad homeland to a United States full of promise). The dream is a mirage because human emotions, greed and cruelty, keep others from succeeding (how often Michael is kept from doing the right thing by corrupt politicians and cops and local thugs), thereby leaving crime the only way to survive. There is no single interpretation for Coppola’s work because to limit the films in such a way would be a detriment to their success. They stand for so many things and appeal to so many people.
Ever since its release, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have remained the most popular films in American life, a representation of almost every facet of our culture (love, family, patriotism, crime, politics, feminism, religion, sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, existentialism and racism), epic in scope, impossible ever to replicate. It is rare for films to achieve cultural significance and alter the way we view the world, but the Godfather films touched the heart of America. They continue to stand as a representation of our best and worst selves, our own American story.