We can’t think of a better way to start our Sequelthon than by reviewing possibly the greatest sequel of all time. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the Corleone family in The Godfather Part II won five Academy Awards in 1974 including Best Picture like its predecessor did two years earlier [1, 2]. Many already know that The Godfather ranks as the second best film of all time according to the American Film Institute (behind only Citizen Kane and IMDB (behind The Shawshank Redemption, how anyone could vote for Shawshank over The Godfather still boggles my mind). These accolades and heaped praise are deserved but their abstract nature can make it easy to forget just how great both The Godfather and its sequel really are.
The Godfather Part II offers an unbelievable amount of content to unpack. While that may be a blogger’s dream, we’ll focus instead on the film’s continuation of the story of Michael Corelone (played by Al Pacino with a level of restraint that might seem impossible if you’ve only seen his more recent work). In the first film Michael actively pushes his family away. He attempts to separate himself from the lifestyle chosen by his father and brothers going as far as to bring the non-Italian Kay Adams to his sister’s super-Italian wedding. We soon find that no matter how hard he tries, Michael cannot escape his family or their legacy. Over the course of nearly three hours Coppola shows Michael slowly being pulled back into their orbit and eventually ascending the family throne. In the film’s final scene we join Kay and look on as capos kiss his ring and call him Godfather.
At the beginning of Part II Michael continues his role as Don Corleone and looks to make the family “legitimate.” That effort mirrors his aforementioned goals in the original but now that he is Godfather he can change the sinister sides of the family business from the inside instead of avoiding it altogether. But just as before, Michael cannot escape the family legacy. Again we watch as Michael makes increasingly large steps towards becoming what he struggles to avoid. By the film’s end he wonders aloud to his mother whether or not he has “lost” his family while working so actively to achieve what is in their best interest. In one of the few conversations between Michael and his mother she reassures him that “you can never lose your family.” Unconvinced, Michael replies that “times are changing.”
The scene is reminiscent of one of the more tragic scenes in The Godfather. Shortly after Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) hands over the title of Godfather to his youngest son Michael, the older man reflects on his life:
Vito Corleone: I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life, I don’t apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.
Michael Corleone: Another pezzonovante.
Vito Corleone: Well, there wasn’t enough time, Michael. There just wasn’t enough time.
Michael Corleone: We’ll get there, Pop. We’ll get there.
Michael never wanted to be “another pezzonovante.” Like his father he wanted to make a better life, a legitimate life, for his children. Both men work with the tools they have to make that happen but struggle against the inevitability of their limitations. On a sunny day in the first movie Michael’s father laments that “there just wasn’t enough time.” On a cold, snowy day in Part II, Michael realizes that “times have changed.” Like Vito he finds himself coming up short despite all his power. By highlighting these human traits, Coppola helps elevate the characters. It’s no surprise then that these two films were nominated for nine Academy Awards in acting categories with two wins, one for Marlon Brando and another for Robert De Niro .
The films blur the line of legitimacy that Michael and Vito obsess over. So called “legitimate” men in both films are shown to be less respectable than the Corleones themselves. In Godfather the corrupt Captain McCluskey of the NYPD works for Virgil Sollozzo and helps enforce the drug trafficker’s will. Men in high positions are shown time and again to be vindictive, imperious and openly racist. Michael sees the seedier side of those in power and dismisses Vito’s desire for him to be a “pezzonovante” in the first film only to pursue legitimacy again once he is the Godfather.
By continuing Michael’s story, The Godfather Part II not only extends the plots from the original but delivers on their promises as well. We see Michael’s story come to fruition while giving us the first half of Vito’s storyline delivered in flashback form. Vito’s story here expands the characterization established in the earlier film, showing conniving and duplicitous sides not seen in the Marlon Brando iteration. Both Vito and Michael’s character arcs benefit from the continued time for exploration (a feat not achieved by all sequels). The two films together manage to be more than the sum of their parts as they explore multiple themes, chief of which (at least for me) is the struggle for man to overcome his nature. We’ve touched on this theme above with Michael and Vito’s struggle for “legitimacy” but haven’t touched on the film’s exploration of family loyalty (the focus in Part II being between the heartbreaking turn of events between Michael and Fredo) and the definition of justice (embodied most discretely in Vito’s flashbacks). Maybe we’ll come back to that on another day. For now we can look ahead to new movies in Flashback/Backslide’s sequelthon. Next up, James Cameron’s 1986 classic Aliens.
Is it better than the original?
No. But that is next to impossible given that The Godfather is one of the absolute best films of all time. Instead, The Godfather Part II provides an admirable and worthy continuation of the themes and arcs established in the first film. And that’s all we can hope for.
Classic Movie Scale: 10/10
 Coppola was busy in 1974, directing The Conversation with Gene Hackman in the same year as The Godfather Part II. The Conversation earned the then 35-year-old director the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The “New Hollywood’ (aka American New Wave) Director would go on to win that prize again in 1979 for Apocalypse Now. At the time, Coppola was only the second director to accomplish this feat and remains the only American director to do so (and one of seven directors in total).
 It would take 29 years for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to become the second sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
 For their portrayals of Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando won Best Actor in 1972 and Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor in 1974. Vito Corleone remains the only character in film history to be played by two actors both of whom won an Oscar for their performances.
CLARIFICATION: The original posting of this review stated that two of Francis Ford Coppola’s films won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. While Apocalypse Now did win that award in 1979, The Conversation won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film which was the highest award given by the festival between 1939-1954 and 1964-1974. Since 1975 the festival has awarded the Palme d’Or as the top prize. Coppola is still one of only seven directors to have two films win the top prize at Cannes. It just happens that those two films won awards with different titles.