“The Godfather” is a better movie than “The Godfather: Part II.” The only reason we are able to appreciate the second one so much is because the first laid down so much foundation for storytelling, where we already know who these characters are, their internal squabbles and external killings, and a sense of what they’ve sacrificed and forsaken in order to get to where they are. Take away “The Godfather,” and in Part II, you just have some moody guy trying to figure out how to kill Lee Strassberg for three-and-a-half hours.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Godfather: Part II” is still one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps even the second best film of the 1970s. But, one thing that stood out to me on this viewing is how it subverts the main theme of the original film. Vito Corleone refused to be anyone’s man but his own, never to be a puppet on someone else’s string. Corleone, while rich, powerful and immensely influential, isn’t exactly a string puller. He has everything that he wants, but can’t really make a big mark on society since he isn’t a legitimate businessman. What Vito wanted for Michael was to be a true string puller, a prominent lawyer, doctor, politician, who who held true sway in society and had as much success and influence that Vito did but on a legitimate level.
But the moment Michael kills Solozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant, that dream of legitimacy withers away. And the moment Sonny is killed, Michael is forced to be heir apparent to the Corleone family throne. On first glance, this looks like Michael is being controlled by strings, that his destiny is no longer his own. But it’s actually Vito who has been made the unwilling puppet, having to sacrifice his son to the mafia life. The funny thing is, Michael likes being a mafia kingpin, probably more than he’d ever like being a lawyer or senator.
And that’s where “Part 2” takes us, to a place where Michael is even more powerful, wanting to spread his family’s influence like a virus all over the world. He is so desperate and paranoid to not want to be controlled that he kills everyone who holds a threat to him. Sure, he has a reason to be paranoid with Fredo, Johnny Ola and Hyman Roth attempting to sabotage and kill him, but if you look at Michael’s beleagured marriage with Kay and his torn relationship with Connie, it’s clear that Michael believes no one can sit by his side if he is truly meant to be the one pulling the strings.
While Vito wanted Michael to command the strings of his own destiny, Michael interpreted his father’s wishes as being a dominating, domineering puppet master. The little Italy scenes show Vito building his own empire, commanding his immigrant strings as much as he can, but he is never a puppet master. He commands respect but treats others with it, he doesn’t bow away from responsibility or duty, and when someone he knows has to be killed, he’s the one who pulls the trigger. Michael is the anti-Vito, a man who didn’t use his power as a means for a better life for his family, but used his family as a means of bettering his power.
While “The Godfather” is the story of America, “The Godfather: Part II” is the story of an American. Or rather, two men who interpreted the dreams and intentions of their country and family to their own success and failure. The score is just as splendid as the first, and while the supporting characters aren’t as enticing as “The Godfather,” they still make for a memorable story. This is one of the best sequels not necessarily that it is better than the first, but it is an excellent continuation of the first, a hazy gaze into the soul of a man who got everything he ever wanted, and all he had to do was throw away everything that made him who he was.