‘The Godfather Part II’ and the dark side of the American dream (2024)

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather Part 2’ (imdb/Paramount Pictures)

This is part two of a series on Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy. You can read my reflection on the original film, “The Godfather” (1972), here.

The American Dream is a dream of freedom: the freedom to determine your own future and the freedom to build something you can leave behind for your children. Few cinematic characters embody that dream more—or lay bare its potential for corruption—than the Corleone family in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy. In the middle chapter, “The Godfather Part II” (1974), we learn the family’s origins while watching them decline into violence and betrayal in the present day: the American Dream putrefying into an American nightmare.

Following the events of the first film, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is now firmly established as the head of his crime family, succeeding his late father Vito, played in the original by Marlon Brando. He has a growing family, makes deals with senators and assures his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) that he’s going to make the Corleone operation a legitimate enterprise. But he has also partnered with the aging, vicious crime lord Hyman Roth (Lee Strasburg) to expand his business, and struggles to manage discontents within his organization, including his f*ckless brother Fredo (John Cazale). As conspiracies grow and blood begins to spill, Michael reveals that there are no limits to what he will do to hold onto power.

In a parallel storyline told through flashbacks, we follow Vito from a boy (Oreste Baldini) forced to flee Sicily after the murder of his family, to a refugee on Ellis Island, to a young family man (Robert DeNiro) trying to make ends meet on the streets of turn-of-the-century New York. Little Italy is close-knit but impoverished, and preyed upon by the swaggering extortionist Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). After unjustly losing his job, Vito becomes a small-time criminal with friends Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea). As his power and capacity for violence grow, we watch him become the imposing Godfather of the first film.

The rot in the Corleone family is there from the start—we are, after all, talking about a crime family—but Vito’s intentions are as good as they can be in this context. He wants to provide for his family, to give his children the life that he never had and to protect his community from wolves like Fanucci. And so he becomes a wolf himself. Vito is both feared and genuinely respected: a powerful man who uses his influence to protect others (we see him shield a widow from eviction, for example), and only employs violence when necessary. Power, for him, is a means to an end.

But for Michael, power is its own end. He says he’s doing everything for the family, to protect the life they have built, but his actions tell a different story. Michael is the dark embodiment of American self-determination, a man who wants to do whatever he wishes without consequence or criticism. All threats to his dominion, even members of his own family, must be destroyed.

Michael has inherited his father’s restraint, but while Vito’s restraint marked him as a man of careful strategy and considered action, Michael’s reveals him as cold. He loves his family but he can’t see that he values them as fixtures of his empire, not people. When they cease to play their assigned role, they become disposable. The transition from Vito and Michael is like the gradual heat death of the universe, the slow draining of warmth from all things. You see this in their relationships with violence: Vito kills two people in the film, both in return for cruel acts, both by his own hand. Michael kills many more, often for dubious reasons, and never directly: Even the most personal murders are carried out by underlings.

Despite his performative Catholicism, Michael puts more stock in the American vision of freedom than the Christian one. Christian freedom has ends beyond itself, as St. Pope Paul VI wrote in “Gaudium et spes”: “For God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions,’ so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him.” We are called to choose and do what is good on our own initiative, aided by grace. Our freedom connects us to others and, eventually, leads us to union with God.

Paul VI contrasts this “authentic freedom” with an atheistic freedom in which man is “the sole artisan and creator of his own history.” This is what Michael wants, perhaps all he has ever wanted. In the first film I interpreted Michael’s distance from his family as a sort of moral stance, a discomfort at their criminal dealings; “Part II” implies that Michael’s true desire was to chart his own course, free from his father’s influence. Now that he has the power to exercise his will, he pursues it without any thought to the cost paid by others.

In the end, Michael gets exactly what he wants. He is—at least for the moment—all-powerful and unthreatened. And completely alone.

“The Godfather Part II” is streaming on Paramount+.

‘The Godfather Part II’ and the dark side of the American dream (2)

John Dougherty

John Dougherty is the director of mission and ministry at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, Pa.

‘The Godfather Part II’ and the dark side of the American dream (2024)

FAQs

How does the godfather represent the American Dream? ›

Vito Corleone's story in The Godfather Part II is interconnected with the American Dream – the pursuit of success, wealth, and social acceptance and respect. The film critically examines the darker side of the American Dream, exposing the lengths to which individuals may go in their crusade for prosperity.

What is the message of Godfather Part 2? ›

It is said that the second film is about greed, that a talented man lost his soul and any connection to decency because of his remarkable success as a gangster.

How is the godfather a metaphor for America? ›

Parallels with the US

The Corleones, a family bonded not just by blood but by their immigrant background, represent an America that is both insular looking and ruthless in its application of force and influence in its own self-interest.

Why was there such a big gap between Godfather 2 and 3? ›

Production. Coppola felt that the first two films had told the complete Corleone saga, and did not want to make another installment in the series. Paramount Pictures nevertheless spent years trying to make another sequel set in the 1970s with another director.

What does the American Dream represent? ›

The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States, that every person has the freedom and opportunity to succeed and attain a better life.

Which character represents the American Dream? ›

In "The Great Gatsby," the characters that represent the American Dream are: Jay Gatsby, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and Myrtle Wilson.

What is the moral of The Godfather Part 2? ›

The film doesn't shy away from the corrupting influence of power. Michael, initially hesitant to embrace the darker aspects of the family business, succumbs gradually. His transformation from a war hero to a ruthless Godfather is a chilling reminder of how easily ambition can cloud morality.

What does the end of The Godfather Part 2 mean? ›

The film ends with Michael victorious but broken, a lonely man in an empire of his own making. The real meaning of The Godfather: Part II's ending highlights the cost of power is too great when it comes at the expense of family and humanity, leaving the once solitary noble Corleone as the most vicious of them all.

Why is The Godfather Part 2 considered good? ›

The Godfather Part II has excellent writing, plotting, editing is even brilliant, acting, and overall quality to watch over again and again. You can never get sick of watching this film. I miss John Cazale. He was truly a gifted actor and I miss him.

What is the moral message of The Godfather? ›

Life Lesson: Don't get too sentimental or emotional when making decisions that could have devastating consequences. For example: Don't write someone you love out of your Will in a fit of anger unless you're 100-percent positive you want that to be a part of your eternal legacy.

What is the deeper meaning of The Godfather? ›

Always be loyal to your family, never go against the family (or the group you are with), never take a decision while angry (Sonny's actions), always think before you take action, don't take anyone's rights and be fair. Although it is a movie (based on a novel) but it does have great lessons in life which are true.

How did The Godfather impact America? ›

With its emphasis on proud ethnicity, The Godfather changed not just the way Italian-Americans saw themselves, but how Americans of all backgrounds viewed their individual and national self-identities, their possibilities, and attendant disappointments. "The Godfather Effect" also had a broader philosophical dimension.

Who killed Michael Corleone's daughter? ›

After her brother's debut concert, the assassin Mosca tries to kill Michael. One bullet grazes Michael's shoulder, but the other accidentally hits Mary in the chest, fatally wounding her. Michael is devastated by Mary's death, and screams in torment while cradling her dead body.

Are Mary and Vincent cousins? ›

On the one hand, Mary and Vincent's relationships is wrong; the two of them are first cousins who acknowledge their familial relationship with cutesy nicknames (Vincent calls Mary “cugina” more than once). On the other hand, The Godfather Part III frames their pairing as one of misguided, but understandable, passion.

Why was Tom Hagen not in Godfather III? ›

Hagen was originally intended to have been featured in The Godfather Part III, but was written out due to a salary dispute between Duvall and the film's producers. Coppola stated in the film's commentary that Duvall demanded the same salary as Al Pacino (who portrayed Michael Corleone).

What does The Godfather represent? ›

The film follows Vito Corleone, the head of an Italian-American mafioso family between 1945 and 1955, a peroid of change after the end of WWII. The Godfather is the ultimate crime film about loyalty, revenge and masculunity in the post-war era. Representing this change is Michael Corleone.

What is the message of The Godfather? ›

The Godfather explores a number of themes that have resonated with audiences over the years. The movie is a meditation on power, family, and loyalty, and it asks questions about what people are willing to do to protect those they love.

What does Dr King mean by the American Dream? ›

According to King, the American dream is that. every person has equal rights, dignity, and worth. Why does King call America " a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself"?

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