As the saying goes: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” A part of everyday parlance, this idiom is one of the many quotable lines in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Al Pacino delivers the line, at the point at which his character, Michael Corleone, transforms from Ivy League war veteran to ruthless, stone-faced killer. Propelled by the image of his father, Don Vito Corleone, recovering in hospital following an attempt on his life by rival mobsters, Michael’s transformation is the pivot around which the film’s drama unfolds.
When we first see him, at his sister Connie’s wedding, he proudly wears his military uniform, adorned with decorations, and has by his side doting girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). In the family portrait taken at the ceremony, Michael stands out from the tuxedoes worn by his brothers. At the end of the film, having organised the assassination of all the gang leaders who originally conspired against his father and older brother Sonny, Michael assumes complete leadership of the Corleone Family. In contrast to his introduction, the last image we see of him is in his newly inherited office, being greeted with respect from new underlings. Kay, now his wife, observes helplessly as the door is closed upon her.
The Godfather Part II – reissued in British cinemas to mark its 40th anniversary – was released two years after the original film and became the first sequel to win the Best Picture Oscar. The epic still holds up today. In many ways, it is a more sophisticated film than the 1972 picture, not least in the way in which it achieves and sustains a considerable pathos, a sympathy for and yet a distance from a character seemingly beyond redemption.
Michael – by this point very much the eponymous Don – is at the beginning of the second film a businessman completely insulated by his own wealth, and consequently estranged from his wife, Kay, and son Anthony, for whom a first communion ceremony is being held in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
The reason for this location is Michael’s ambitions to expand and consolidate his network of casino operations in Las Vegas. Nevada Senator Pat Geary (GD Spradlin) gives a public speech, presents a cheque to the Corleones and poses for civil photographs with his guests. Behind closed doors, he speaks frankly with Michael, expressing his disdain for the Corleone Family’s illegal operations. This early standoff, between a phoney politician and a cold-eyed gangster looking to strong-arm his way into further enterprise, is summed up when the latter remarks: “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy.”
At this point, Michael still divides his business interests and his domestic interests. To Geary, he adds, “but never think it applies to my family.” As Coppola’s sequel unfolds, however, its tragedy becomes apparent: Michael’s line of business is conditioned by a monetary system that turns need into greed and siblings against one another. Take Michael’s older brother Fredo (John Cazale), a simple man whose low confidence and simmering jealousy renders him an easy target for enemies. Fredo is easily duped into betraying Michael. When an unsuccessful attempt is made on his life, Michael knows he cannot afford to trust anyone. “All our people are businessmen”, he tells his associate and half-brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), “their only loyalty is to that.” Indeed, though Michael hereafter acts in the interests of his wife and son, his intentions are gradually and visibly strangled by an obsession with his enemies – enemies perceived and actual. Why? Because his dual interests are one and the same. Michael, too, is loyal only to his business.
In a world whose economic system is built on self-expanding profit, expansion is synonymous with survival. That was as true for the first imperialists as it is for a businessman like Michael Corleone. Indeed, Michael has precedent in his father, Vito (Robert De Niro), seen here in extended flashbacks as he is forced through economic need into a life of crime. When the American Dream is unattainable, crime becomes a necessity.
Vito emigrates from Sicily as a boy, arriving in New York in 1901. As an adult, we see him discover a world of aggression, poverty and injustice. When he asks why a local mobster takes money from fellow Italians, he is told it’s because the gangster knows they have nobody to protect them.
In The Godfather Part II, family is business. One has children in this world to ensure the continuation of the company. Male ruthlessness is required. Michael is convinced the baby Kay is carrying is going to be a boy. When family is such a cultural mainstay, it becomes at some point an obstacle to financial gain. When this happens – as it does throughout the film – it’s only natural that family members are castigated, shut out or killed off entirely.
Not only do fellow businessmen – that is, gangsters – know this, but Kay knows it, too. Horrified by the senate hearings her husband has to attend, Kay tells Michael she aborted their child. Rendered powerless in both political and domestic terms, the only way Kay can gain some rule over her husband is by hurting herself. Kay is further marginalised when Michael shuts her out. By the end of the film, in fact, Michael has been totally consumed by the very thing he once actively opposed: namely, a business whose go-to method of conflict resolution is deceit and murder.
This contradiction – between making money and sustaining healthy family ties – is irreconcilable. Indeed, part of what makes The Godfather Part II a more sophisticated work than the original film is the way it goes beyond the pulpy, more romantic tone of its predecessor. Whereas the first film was a thrilling film about several brothers deciding how best to protect their vulnerable father, the second rebukes the idea of any happily resolved narrative. To his horror, Michael grasps this concept – that he is losing his family through the very process of trying to protect them. That is his tragedy. In The Godfather Part II, his trajectory is a logical extension of the mantle he assumed at the end of the first film.
Both films are framed as American Epics. The opening line of the first film, spoken to Don Vito by a fellow Italian immigrant, is: “I believe in America.” Very early in the sequel, we see a flashback of the young Vito looking at the Statue of Liberty. In its final image, Michael sits pensively, weary and alone. He is made in America.