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Monday, January 24, 2022

January 24, 2022: American Gangsters: The Godfather Part II

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On the profoundly American layers to our greatest gangster story.

Given the enduring and justified popularity of and critical approbation for the first film, this might be AmericanStudies (or at least AmericanFilmStudies) heresy, but I’m not sure any American text (in any medium or genre) represents a more unexpectedly impressive reflection and commentary on our national narratives and identity than Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather:  Part II (1974). Anybody who has read the original source material, Mario Puzo’s pulp classic The Godfather (1969), is likely to agree with me about the unexpectedness; Puzo’s novel is fun but really quite pulp-y, from the opening’s graphic sex scene to the many similarly lowbrow highlights throughout. Puzo actually adapted his own novel for both of the first two films, and to my mind the first film, 1972’s The Godfather (1972), while undoubtedly a triumph in many ways, really tells one story: Michael Corleone’s. It tells it exceptionally well, and Al Pacino has never been better, but the thorough focus on Michael makes the film at least somewhat narrow in its themes and ideas as well.

While Puzo again worked with Coppola on the screenplay for the second film, while most of the original’s cast returned, and while Michael’s continuing trajectory is still very much at its core, it’s nonetheless difficult to overstate just how much more broad and deep Part II is, most especially in its connection to American narratives and identities. That extension and deepening is really the result of a couple of core and pitch-perfect structural choices made by Puzo and Coppola, one utilizing some material from the novel but in a very unique way, the other entirely new to this second film. For the first, the film incorporates Vito Corleone’s backstory from the novel, with a young Robert De Niro stepping into Marlon Brando’s shoes and fully inhabiting this younger version of the Don; even more impressive than De Niro’s quiet and nuanced performance and the recreation of this turn of the 20th century world (from Sicily to America and back again), however, is the way in which the film transitions back and forth between the flashbacks and Michael’s story in the present. The parallels complicate and yet amplify the film’s themes of a multigenerational American family’s progress from immigration to assimilation to power, making the Corleone family’s narrative a deeply and unsettlingly American one at every stage. And there’s one transition in particular, as De Niro holds a baby Michael in the past and then we transition to the adult Michael watching his young son sleep, that is as human and heartbreaking as anything in American film.

The film’s second, entirely new structural choice takes that present story of Michael’s to entirely new places, literally and figuratively, and is perhaps even more inspired. As part of his budding relationship with an older Jewish American crime boss, Hyman Roth, Michael travels to Cuba, where the dictatorial Batista government has been working hand in hand with wealthy American business (and criminal) interests to the mutual benefit for both sides. This new setting allows for the film not only to represent Castro’s revolution and the chaos and change it unleashes in Cuba (and within these American communities that have depended on Batista for much of their business and success), but also to set many of Michael’s own crises—including the breakdown of his relationship with Roth and, most importantly for the film, his revelations about his brother Fredo’s participation in efforts to assassinate him—against the backdrop of this society undergoing such powerful shifts. And while the specific historical details are hugely complex and interesting in their own right—both about Cuba itself and about the US’s relationship with the Batista regime—the thematic implications, the reflections on the kinds of American, political, and social power to which the Corleone family has ascended (and the kinds of people who resist such power, people in Cuba who seem quite literally parallel to where Vito Corleone and the family began in Sicily in relationship to that society’s power structures), are even more rich and revealing.

I’ll admit that I’ve never seen the whole of Part III (both because of the very critical things I’ve read and because, I suppose, I want Part II to be the culmination), so I can’t write with any authority about the trilogy as a whole. But ultimately, my point here is that whether you’re seen the first or the third films, whether you like gangster movies or historical epics or Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or hate all of those things and people with a fiery passion, The Godfather: Part II is not just our greatest gangster story but one of the greatest American films of all time, with a strong and significant emphasis on American. Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

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