by Pauline Kael
At the end of The Godfather Part II (1974), the story was complete—beautifully complete. Francis Ford Coppola knew it, and for over a decade he resisted Paramount’s pleas for another sequel. But the studio’s blandishments became more honeyed, his piggy bank was smashed, and late in 1988 he had an illumination: he discovered how the story should be continued. Michael Corleone would be in his King Lear phase, with his empire slipping from his hands. Michael, he announced openly, without shame, was going through what he himself had been going through. In Coppola’s thinking, he had become his own tragic hero. (Mario Puzo, who wrote the 1969 novel on which the films were based, and collaborated with Coppola on the screenplays, held his tongue.)
Most of the emotional force went out of Coppola’s moviemaking in the late nineteen-seventies, when he was working on Apocalypse Now, and it has never fully come back. Pictures such as One from the Heart, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tucker, and The Cotton Club were preceded by so much buildup in the press that early audiences kept being stunned to find an empty shell of a movie. We’ve never had another director whose fall was so prolonged, or one who harangued the press so bitterly, blaming it for his burnout and his miscalculations. Coppola makes himself the issue. After each new film, he was so nakedly hurt and upset that you couldn’t help becoming involved in his pain. (For a while, he was Tucker, the victim of the big car companies.) By now, you can’t discuss his movies apart from discussing him—he’s made it impossible. He blames the press for that, too.
Coppola has been licking his wounds publicly for over a decade. He’s turned his exhaustion and wound-licking into the subject of The Godfather Part III. Its emblem is the sagging face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the Godfather. In the first film, Michael became a killer for the sake of his family. (He treated it as his duty to kill his sister Connie’s treacherous husband.) In Godfather II we saw that it wasn’t family he cared about now—it was power. Predatory and vicious, he’d killed his poor weakling brother Fredo. He’d put himself beyond redemption, and at the end he had lost his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and was alone with his two pampered children and Connie (Talia Shire). Yet in III we’re supposed to believe in a remorseful, basically good Michael Corleone. Twenty years have passed, and now he’s trying to give his family a good name and protect his daughter Mary’s innocence. (That is, he’s trying to keep her in ignorance of his murderous past.) He has moved the family wealth out of gambling and into banking and investments, but the other mobsters resent his climb toward respectability, and—here’s the tricky element—the higher he moves in international banking circles, the crookeder the action, and the more he is victimized. Godfather III is about worldwide corruption.
Trying to put the Corleone family above reproach, Michael enters into negotiations with the Vatican; it has the standing to launder his money and his name. (That seems to be his way of expiating his crimes.) Michael, it turns out, is honorable compared with the big-time grandees who deal with the Vatican. It’s Michael who tries—and fails—to save the life of Pope John Paul (Raf Vallone); he is poisoned by the consortium of European financiers. (Since the movie is set in 1979 and 1980, Michael was doomed to failure; John Paul actually died in 1978.)
The first two Godfather movies are peaks in our movie-going experience. In their combined seven and a half hours, they’re our gangster epic, our immigration epic, our national passion. They belong to us. So we care about this huge, ambitious new project; watching the sequences, we pull for Coppola, worrying about whether he’ll be able to bring them off. Lightning didn’t strike three times; the movie is lumbering. Yet I was relieved—I felt he could get by with it. It resembles the first two pictures, and there’s always something happening. I don’t think it’s going to be a public humiliation, and it’s too amorphous to damage our feelings about the first two.
Godfather III feels as if it had been ripped from Coppola’s hands before he could shape it and finish it. That’s probably what happened; he may have needed two or three months longer, though chances are that if he had been given a year it would still be messy. This picture isn’t just unpolished and weakly scored; it lacks coherence. The internal force has vanished from his work, but you still expect some narrative flow; instead, he reaches for awesomeness. Trying to make a masterpiece, he resorts to operatic pyrotechnics that don’t come out of anything.
Coppola chose to make The Outsiders in the style of Gone with the Wind; he’s made Godfather III in the style of the earlier Godfather movies. But there’s no connection anymore between Coppola and this style. The sensibility is different; the quality of feeling—what gave the films their lyricism and made the public bond with them—is gone.
In the first two Godfather pictures Coppola took opportunistic, sensationalist material and turned it into drama. In Godfather III you catch glimpses of news stories. Joe Mantegna, as the smooth-faced hood Joey Zasa, is like Joey Gallo dressed in John Gotti’s wardrobe, and the package deals with the Vatican recall the Sindona affair. But Coppola doesn’t transform the sensationalist material; he just presents it, with an aura of solemnity.
Michael now lives in a New York penthouse and buys himself the Order of St. Sebastian by donating a hundred million dollars to the Vatican to distribute to the poor of Sicily. The amounts bandied about are trashily large: he agrees to hand the Vatican six hundred million dollars more, and is swindled. These transactions illustrate why Michael can’t go on as Godfather. The point appears to be that he was meant for something better. He’s grieving, and you get the sense that it’s not for the brother and brother-in-law he killed, or his first wife and his brother Sonny, whom others killed, or his dead parents; it’s for the lost possibilities in himself. The action doesn’t seem attached to anything, because Michael’s passions are spent and his thoughts are elsewhere. He wants out. Coppola might be saying, “I shouldn’t have to be doing this. I’ve already made this picture.”
Al Pacino gives a good morose performance, with deep pouches under his eyes. He plays the role with fine professionalism, but it’s no longer a startling role, with hidden currents that suddenly come to the surface; it’s limited and monochromatic. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen isn’t around, and he’s missed; Pacino has no one to play off. Michael doesn’t reveal himself with the old sneak of a don who pretends to be harmless (a too effusive performance by Eli Wallach) or with his lifelong henchman Al Neri (Richard Bright); he’s a silent, solitary figure, his body hunched over, his face a mask of lethargy. It’s a mistake, I think, to have given him no new sex partners and left him clinging nobly to his forlorn love for his ex-wife, Kay. It’s great to see Diane Keaton, but she has always seemed wasted in this poorly written role; now eons have passed, and Kay is still dropping bland moral judgments. She and everybody else keep telling Michael that they love him and forgive him—how much reassurance does Coppola need?
After Michael’s son, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), refuses to study law and goes off to become an opera singer, Michael takes on the training of his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), his brother Sonny’s illegitimate son (in King Lear. Edmund, the bastard). Sonny was a hothead; Vincent is a torpedo, a killer without guilt pangs. His speed in violence suggests a kinetic self-realization with a gun. Physically, Garcia is well cast. He has a widow’s peak, and he flashes fire, or his liquid brown eyes twinkle, or he speaks with a sexy undertone. But the illusion never takes hold. Where are the scenes in which Michael would recognize that Vincent has the steel and cunning to hold power? Michael seems to turn his empire over to a loyal bodyguard. The movie appears to be saying that Michael recognizes that in this depraved world Vincent, with his killer instincts, is the man for the job—the man that Michael now thinks he never was. Maybe that’s too self-serving for Coppola to make it more explicit.
The Irish actor Donal Donnelly—he was the drunken, stuttering Freddy in The Dead—is perfection as the mealy-mouthed Vatican banker Archbishop Gilday. And as a photojournalist whose casual bedroom date with Vincent puts her in the middle of an attempted hit, the frisky Bridget Fonda has comic electricity popping out all over. As Michael’s financial adviser (a replacement for Duvall), George Hamilton, loitering in the background, looks as if he were born encased in a stretch limo; too bad he has nothing to do. Negative publicity about the movie has centered on Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who plays Michael’s adored daughter, Mary. It’s obvious that this teen-age girl is not a trained actress; she seems uncomfortable at times, and her voice (or a dubber’s voice) lacks expressiveness—which is a serious flaw in her last scene. But she has a lovely and unusual presence; she gives the film a breath of life, and I grew to like her. (What I didn’t like was that Coppola makes you feel protective toward her. And there’s one layer too many when she says “Dad” at the end.)
The strongest performance—in terms of sheer animal strength and suggestions of emotional reserves—is given by Talia Shire, whose Connie calls up dark plotting women like Livia in I, Claudius, and Lady Macbeth, and Lucrezia Borgia; she’s tough. It’s Connie who angles Vincent into the family; when she’s fed up listening to him talk about how he wants to kill one of the Corleones’ enemies, she says “Do it,” and her words have the kinetic charge of his actions. Part of Connie’s silent-movie witchiness is in her resemblance to Pacino’s ravaged Michael, and part is in her reflective, knowing half smile. Connie acts like family: when she says, “Come on, Michael,” it’s in a gutsy, impatient voice that only she would dare to use.
Visually, Godfather III is disappointingly soft and dark; it’s so toned in to the earlier films that it seems to belong to a brown past. (The processing must be at fault: the film looks as if it were already on TV.) The core colors of the three movies come through in the blood-red silks and velvets, burnished dark wood, and gold details of the opera-house scenes in Sicily, where Anthony makes his debut as the tenor in Cavalleria Rusticana. This Sicilian opera about La Vendetta represents where the saga of the Corleones began, when young Vito’s parents were murdered. And while the music goes on, a series of assassinations is carried out— an echo of the assassinations that ended the first film. The picture might have had some fresh wit if we’d seen that now that the Corleones were in the legitimate business world they had lawyers do their dirty deeds. Instead, it’s the same old bang-bang, and this time there’s no horror in the bloodshed—only grandiosity. (You may not even be quite sure who’s doing what, or why.) When Michael has his big scene on the steps of the opera house, with a prolonged silent scream and then an actual scream, we don’t experience his agony. His later, final moment seems just an addendum, a mistake.
There’s no conviction in Michael’s atonement, and none in Vincent’s fire, either. Godfather III looks like a Godfather movie, but it’s not about revenge and it’s not about passion and power and survival. It’s about a battered moviemaker’s king-size depression.
The New Yorker, January 14, 1991