In the year of its 30th anniversary, legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has revised the third film in his Godfather trilogy, trimming several minutes and making changes to the beginning and the ending of the film. While some might say to do so is an interesting exercise at best, many might also wonder who was asking for it? In Coppola’s canon and within the trilogy, The Godfather Part III is an afterthought to many and even reviled in some corners.
Arriving in 1990, sixteen years after The Godfather Part II, critics were asking the same question they’re asking today: Is it necessary? It’s no small feat to follow up what may have been the greatest 1-2 punch in cinematic history over a decade and a half after bringing the saga to what seemed to be a perfect conclusion—but that’s what Coppola did.
Whatever brought Coppola back to his crowning achievement (I’m sure a truckload of money played a part), The Godfather Part III was, to a degree, doomed from the start. It had an impossible standard to live up to, and even before it was seen, many a cynic viewed it (not entirely incorrectly) as a vulgar cash grab by Paramount Studios.
But what of the movie itself? Say, if only for 170 minutes of running time, we simply viewed the film in a vacuum, and took it as a standalone cinematic experience? Could we judge it on its own merits and not by those of its historic predecessors? If we could do that, could we ask ourselves just one question: Is The Godfather Part III a good movie?
Over the weekend, I sat with this question and found the answer to not only be an affirmative one, but one easily arrived at. That’s not to say that GF3 lacks issues—it’s not a perfect film. Sofia Coppola as Mary, the ill-fated daughter of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, is out of her depth in a pivotal role. One can’t help but wonder how (original choice) Winona Ryder might have handled the part had she not dropped out at the last second due to exhaustion. Unfortunately, while the director’s daughter looks right and the camera loves her, her line readings are stilted and amateurish.
The film also greatly misses Robert Duvall as the adopted brother and consigliere to Michael, Tom Hagan. As the story goes, Paramount wouldn’t meet Duvall’s asking price, and George Hamilton (yes, really) steps into the role of the family’s lawyer, and while he’s fine in the movie (yes, really), he could not possibly make up for the loss of Duvall.
The good news is that despite those two defects, there is still a lot that is worthy in this muted coda to The Godfather legacy. In particular, Al Pacino’s subdued performance as Michael went woefully undervalued at the time of the film’s release. After making the full conversion to ruthless crime boss at the end of GF2, we find an older, (somewhat) wiser, and softer Michael trying to overcome the sins of the past (particularly the murder of his brother, Fredo, an act that hangs over Michael and the film throughout), by taking the family business completely legitimate.
It’s become something of a cliche (and a reductive one at that) to describe Pacino as a scenery-chewing ham. Even if one buys into that description, it’s awfully hard to apply it to his subdued work here. At first glance, Michael seems as formidable as ever. The Vatican has bestowed a medal upon him, he is flush with insane amounts of cash, and his shock of graying hair is cut to a just beyond buzz cut length that practically states in an iron-ringed fashion, “strictly business.”
What we soon learn though, is that these trappings of wealth and power have not sustained Michael’s soul, nor his stomach for what must be done to completely extract himself from the world of crime that has provided him with so much opulence.
That apprehension can be seen early in the film as Michael attempts to mediate a disagreement between mid-level crime boss Joey Zasa (well played by Joe Mantegna) and Michael’s illegitimate nephew (son of James Caan’s departed Sonny Corleone), Vincent (a live-wired Andy Garcia). As Michael seeks to find compromise between Zasa and his hot-headed nephew, Vincent let’s out a barely-hinged off-camera shout in Zasa’s direction that lifts Michael right out of his chair. The expression on his face is clear: I’m too old for this shit.
Which is precisely why Michael solicits the assistance of the Vatican to help broker a deal in acquiring Immobiliare, an international real estate conglomerate that will allow the Corleone family to leave crime behind forever, and provide an honest living to generations of Corleones to come.
Of course, if going straight were so easy, we’d have a very short movie. Michael soon finds that the world of legitimate business is even less honorable—(“The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes”)—than working with thieves, even if it lacks the body count of his criminal life’s work. To make matters even more difficult, the crime families he’s worked with in the past to create a relatively peaceful and profitable business relationship, see Immobiliare as an opportunity to wash their dirty money clean. How could their old friend Michael leave them out of this great opportunity?
When Michael meets with the leaders of these families, he attempts to provide a simple solution: pay them off. For some members of the crime syndicate, this option is acceptable, but there’s always someone who wants more. And what was supposed to be a festive going away party results in acrimony followed by a sudden and spectacular assassination attempt by helicopter which leaves many a crime boss bleeding out with shards of a most beautiful glass chandelier peppering their expensive suits.
As Michael points out shortly after, in the film’s most memorable line, “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” Which, in a very sizable nutshell is what GF3 is about—a man’s inability to outrun the sins of his past. While that’s hardly a revolutionary theme, what matters is how the story is told.
And for the preponderance of its nearly three-hour running time, GF3 tells this story quite well. It’s a smaller film in scope than GF & GF2, but that approach befits the subject matter. Michael has lost so much along the way, including his father, two marriages, and all three of his brothers. In GF3, Michael’s life is running down, and he’s trying to make the best of what’s still around.
That means taking care of his immediate family (Mary and his opera singer son, Anthony), and keeping them safe long after he is gone. The trouble is that to do so once again requires Michael to get his hands dirty. In enlisting Vincent to protect the family, Michael makes a deal that makes sense on one level, but will cost him dearly on another. Vincent loves Michael, and he loves his cousin Mary (a little too much as it turns out), but Vincent is too much like his father, Sonny. It’s not just that he is born for a life of crime, he revels in it. By taking Vincent into the family, the film makes the point that Michael will always have to deal with thugs no matter the resolve of his efforts to go legit.
Crime is not a choice for Michael anymore—the poison is in the well, and the curse will be passed down to his family whether they are willing recipients or not. While you can count Vincent among the willing, he’s not alone. Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) has made a sort of rotting-from-the-inside peace with the murders of both her brother Fredo and her husband, and is all too willing to play Lady Macbeth to Pacino’s tortured mafia king. Here we see Michael beset not only from without but from within, and it’s simply beyond him to muster the strength to control all the forces surrounding him—all the forces he set in motion long ago.
In a tearful third act confession, Michael turns to a priest and says, “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?” Of course, the priest points out that one can always repent. But for Michael, true repentance would require a time machine. It’s not god’s forgiveness Michael seeks, so much as it is his own. As it turns out, God might just go easier on Michael than Michael would himself. Even when his second wife, and mother to both of his children, Kay (Diane Keaton in a small, but lovely performance) offers him a measure of forgiveness for keeping their children out of the crime world, it still isn’t enough.
The film closes in Italy as Michael and his family attend an opera starring his son Anthony in a lead role. It’s a bravura sequence that goes on for thirty largely wordless minutes. The music of the onstage performance provides almost all of the sound as multiple assassination plots play out against the backdrop of the opera’s drama. It’s a bold move to end the film out this way, and Francis Ford Coppola is up to the challenge. While no longer the sure-handed auteur of his ‘70s peak, Coppola’s master craftsman skills are in full effect here, and the succession of hits and near misses are delivered with white-knuckle directorial brio.
As the opera ends, and the Corleones descend a grand staircase together the mood is briefly celebratory. But those sins of the past and their dogged pursuit of Michael cannot be outpaced, and one final act of violence ends the life that Michael cared for most in the world, and in doing so, metaphorically, ends his.
We see Michael one last time in the film as a bedraggled old man in a lawn chair, with only a sweet mutt at his feet. His body slumps from his chair, and lands with a weak thud on the ground. The dog circles around him and the presence of the canine makes the scene all the lonelier. Where is Michael’s family? Who is left to love him? Only his dog.
When The Godfather Part III was released thirty years ago the chief complaint about the film is that it did not live up to the two films that came before it. Somehow, over time, this criticism has taken hold and devolved into a belief by far too many that this final installment isn’t just a shortfaller, or even a noble failure, but that it is a flat-out bad movie Which strikes me as an incredibly lazy default. Because while there is no denying that there are chinks in the film’s armor, one cannot ignore all of the armor. Upon closer inspection, what remains beyond the film’s notable flaws is sturdy, noble, and in its finest moments, of which there are many, The Godfather Part III is certifiably grand.