This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Thomas Willett’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
As much as I didn't want to go into the Fathom Event with the cloud of "what is cinema" over my head that has populated the internet recently thanks to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, I couldn't help but understand their bigger point. What is cinema if it doesn't take risks? Kevin Feige can claim that he killed half of his cast in Avengers: Infinity War, but what good is it if you know they're contractually obligated to star in films for the next five years? Sure, the core cast was up for dispute in the sequel, but that risk is laughable because despite being a risk in 2008, 2019 Marvel is a factory. An entertaining factory, but nothing that would sabotage the reputation of the multi-billion dollar industry.
Watching the most beloved sequel in history in a theater gave me a deeper appreciation for Coppola: a master of experimentation. The whole point of this movie is to undo the goodwill of the first by turning Michael Corleone into a monster. Large portions will present the great Robert de Niro... speaking Italian for 98% of his screen time. It's a move that attempts to challenge the family dynamic and, as I found out on the Unspooled podcast, used the abortion plotline just years after it was legalized. This is a premier adult drama and defines why Al Pacino will always be respected. Yes, there is a lot of yelling in this, but to watch his eyes grow into this repressed madness reflects a level of acting that is sublime and horrifying. You're sure that he's going to snap. He's far from the reluctant figure of The Godfather. Now he has the power and his true intentions are revealed.
I also love that this film is essentially bookended with death in a family. The first is at a funeral where Vito is the patriarch despite being single-digits. There is shooting before the scene is over and Vito is forced to flee the country. It's the story of the American dream through a perverted mob story, and it's as majestic as it's seedy. On the other side is Fredo, which... I don't think I need to tell you. I haven't thought much about John Cazale as an actor, but this may be his finest hour. To watch him nervously work his way through the film is to understand Coppola's magic. Michael talks about a snitch before cutting to Fredo lying in bed (he is on his back for a large portion of the movie, suggesting his own funeral). There's just so much heartbreak because Michael isn't forgiving anything. Whereas death was impersonal the first time, happening by another man's hand; the final death is the most personal and heartbreaking imaginable: brother against brother.
If you're asking me in a debate, I have always preferred the sequel. This is an emotionally wrenching film that enhances the story and creates the perfect bookend for the original. I just forgot how much of that was improved by richer symbolism in the dialogue and performance choices. Yes, the wedding scene that opens the film seems a bit repetitive, but I love how the band's inability to play an Italian song shows a subtle form of disconnect (also, Lee Strasberg's "Dee dee dee dee" is funny to me for some reason). It's a gorgeous film, and even the choice to shoot Pacino with half his face constantly in shadow is brilliant in its subtlety.
Sure, this film is a risk from the first frame. Who would think to make a sequel to The Godfather? Who would think to zap the goodwill of a protagonist who has defined pop culture by making him the greatest antihero in film history? There's so much that feels risky, especially for an American film going 3.5 hours (I'd make the argument "The Godfather Part II didn't need articles telling people when to pee," but I forgot there was an intermission) and shot in a large portion in Italian. It's easy to take for granted now, but I can imagine that sitting in that theater, witnessing one of the finest film performances slowly reveals its true form as a thing of beauty. It's a risk to be this nihilistic and have every last sad fact matter.
The moment that I forgot about is a small one that hits hard when you know the richer context. As Vito tells his infant son "Wave goodbye Michael" as he leaves on the train, there is a sense that Coppola blankly stated that we're saying goodbye to some form of innocence in the remaining story. The prior chapters could be misconstrued, but there's a part of Michael that's now dead. Everything after is traumatic, tearing apart the family that the first film worked so hard to form. It's a powerful crescendo, and I don't know another film that gets away with it this swiftly. Even Fredo talking about fishing manages to become the most depressing scene in the world because it feels like everyone knows but Fredo, and his good day is about to get much, much worse.
I love this movie and I hate thinking of it in the context of recent events. Then again, it more than informs why Coppola is a much more exciting filmmaker, even in his spotty 1980's time of S.E. Hinton adaptations and experimental musicals than those who challenge his authenticity. So he made Jack, so what? His filmography is never dull (and I say that as your resident The Godfather Part III defender) and I wish cinema took more chances, produced films where we didn't think a sequel was in the pipelines. I know there are films like that out there, but mainstream American cinema doesn't get this rich too often nowadays. I feel like a crank saying it, but when we settle for films like Joker using Scorsese and Lumet as pastiche instead of reveling in the substance, I think we need to solve the problem before it gets worse and recognize why those older films resonate.
With that said, this won't be my only 3.5-hour movie starring Al Pacino and Robert de Niro that I'll see in theaters. Yes, a local theater will be playing The Irishman at the end of the month, and I cannot wait. I can only hope it lives up to the moniker of "gangster movie to end all gangster movies" because after seeing what the greats of acting can do here, I really want to believe that they still have something to say.
Finally, I forgot that Roger Corman was in this. While I know his impact on film history, it's interesting to know what is nice to filmmakers does to your career. He's an actor in TWO Best Picture winners: The Godfather Part II and Silence of the Lambs. That's quite an honor.