Note: I went back and forth on whether I should watch The Godfather Part III prior to watching Coppola's re-edited version, which has been retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. I had not watched Part III in close to 10 years and have only seen it a handful of times, so I am not deeply familiar with it. However, in the end I decided not to, opting instead to watch Coda and try to evaluate it on its own merits, rather than in comparison to Part III. Afterwards, curiosity got the best of me, and I went back and scanned through and watched large sections of Part III. So, any comparisons I make between the two films was done in this manner.
Eighteen years after the release of The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola's career-defining, industry-reinvigorating masterpiece, and 16 years after the release of its arguably superior sequel The Godfather Part II (1974), Coppola returned on Christmas Day in 1990 with The Godfather Part III, which he again co-wrote with Godfather novelist Mario Puzo. Given the international stature of the first two films (both of which won the Oscar for Best Picture), the lengthy amount of time that had elapsed since Part II, and the fact that the 1980s had been rough on Coppola critically, commercially, and financially, it is the height of understatement to say that much was riding on Part III. And, even though it earned seven Oscar nominations and fared decently at the box office, it has always been viewed as a letdown, an insufficient follow-up to two of the greatest modern American films.
Of course, it is hard to imagine that Part III had any chance of being seen otherwise considering the multiple acts it had to follow. Not only was it the second sequel to one of the New Hollywood's most canonical films, but the previous sequel had done the unimaginable by arguably besting its predecessor in quality and accolades. How could another sequel possibly match that feat? Complicating things was the status of Coppola's legacy: having been the former "great white knight who made it," as his protg George Lucas called him in describing Coppola's ability to break into the fabled Hollywood studio system as a young man and bend it to his will, Coppola had struggled throughout the Reagan years. He was hobbled by several financial fiascos, including the disastrous One From the Heart (1982) and The Cotton Club (1984), and his attempts to develop new means of filmmaking such as extensive previsualization and editing on video earned him scorn from multiple quarters. His ambitious dreams of turning his production company, American Zoetrope, into its own studio floundered, and he spent most of the decade producing a slate of films that, while often very good, nevertheless felt beneath the work of the man who, in 1974, won both the Best Picture Oscar for Godfather Part II and the Palm d'Or for The Conversation (which, incidentally, was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar).
So, when he produced another Godfather film at the end of the decade, it seemed, on its face, something of desperate gambit, a bid to reclaim his former glory by going back to the story and characters that had established him as one of the most important, powerful, and acclaimed figures in international cinema. It did not help matters that Coppola had to acquiesce to the studio's demands that the film be completed in time for a big Christmas release, which meant that he had to rush virtually every stage of production, from writing the script, to editing and postproduction. He was also unable to cast the film as he wanted, since the studio refused to meet Robert Duvall's salary demands, meaning that consigliere Tom Haden, a crucial moral balance in the previous two films, had to be written out.
Thus, it should come as little surprise that Coppola has always been unsatisfied with Part III and has now gone back and reworked it, changing the order of several sequences (including moving to the beginning a sequence that occurs 40 minutes into the film), cutting out about 15 minutes of footage, tweaking the ending, redubbing some dialogue, and giving it a bold, if somewhat unwieldy, new title: The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. Coppola is no stranger to reworking his finished films: there are no less than three different versions of Apocalypse Now (1979), which was also rushed to completion (he infamously declared that he didn't know if it was finished when it premiered at Cannes), and he changed The Outsiders (1982) and The Cotton Club (1984) by adding multiple scenes that had been cut from the original release. In 1977 he edited footage from the first two Godfather films into a single, chronological television miniseries, and in 1992 he added the footage from Part III, turning it into a nearly 10-hour epic.
The Godfather Part III has always been a substantially different film than its predecessors, as Coppola viewed it less as a third "part" and more as an epilogue to the first two films, hence his use of the word "coda" in the new title. Although there was no direct narrative impetus at the end of Part II to continue the story (in fact, that film's ending is a near perfect visualization of Michael Corleone's moral descent), the depth and potential of the subject matter and the immediacy of the characters in the pop-culture landscape virtually demanded that they be revisited at some point (and there had been many, many failed attempts to make a third film throughout the late 1970s and '80s). Cynics and naysayers wrote it off as Coppola's attempt to jump-start his flagging career, and such criticisms unfortunately clouded judgment of the film itself, which, although not in the league with its predecessors, is still an invigorating, deeply felt piece of work.
If mafia don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had sunk to his lowest levels of humanity by the end of Part II, Coda is about his bid for redemption. Having sold off all his illegal interests and gone completely legitimate, Michael finds himself at a crossroads in life in which his past looms too large and omnipresent to escape-an existential fatalism haunts the film. Pacino, aged with make-up and a spiky gray crew-cut that emphasizes the length of his face and the sunkenness of his cheeks, years removed from the round-faced young war hero in the first film, turns in a powerful performance to match his work in the earlier films. He suggests Michael Corleone near the end of his years, reaching the same place in life that Vito occupied in the first film, thus bringing the links between father and son full circle.
Coppola had had great success in casting the first two Godfather films, bucking the wishes of Paramount executives by hiring Pacino when he was an unknown (the studio wanted Robert Redford) and Marlon Brando when he was considered too difficult to work with and insisting on Robert De Niro in the role of the young Vito. All of these casting decisions turned out to be astounding successes-the right choice in every sense of the phrase. Thus, it is of deep irony that Part III would be most harshly criticized for a casting choice: Coppola's decision to fill the critical role of Michael's late-teenage daughter, Mary, with his own daughter, Sofia Coppola.
He had originally cast Winona Ryder, but she had to bow out after two days due to health problems, which is why he turned to his own daughter, an amateur actor whose lack of experience shows in her performance. Physically ideal for the role, she simply cannot carry the weight of the character, and the film suffers as a result. Coppola has made a number of slight edits and re-recorded a substantial amount of dialogue in a bid to improve her performance, which yields some benefits, but not enough to entirely disguise her limited range (of course, Sofia Coppola has gone on to become a first-rate director, which is where her true gifts clearly lie). The critical invective hurled at her performance and its perceived drag on the film as a whole was hyperbolic if not downright ugly at times, which is, unfortunately, sometimes par for the course when it comes to critics who have axes to grind.
Yet, her presence is never detrimental to the entire effort, and the tweaks Coppola has made brings into tighter focus the film's relative strengths and how it has some real moments of incredible and terrible grandeur. A memorable scene in which a ballroom full of aging Mafia dons is decimated by helicopters filled with machine guns is horribly beautiful in the same manner as the infamous slaughter at the end of the first film. Coppola wisely brings the story back to its roots in Sicily, and even when the convoluted narrative regarding corruption in the Vatican becomes too strained to follow, he always keeps us focused on the characters we have grown to know and maybe even admire. Michael Corleone has done many terrible things-even he believes he is beyond forgiveness-but we are always reminded of his basic humanity, which we see with particular clarity in his attempts to reconcile with his embittered ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), who has since remarried and wants to push Michael to allow his son. Anthony, to pursue a career in opera.
The circularity of human violence, which we first saw embodied in the transition of power from Vito to Michael, now finds its voice in Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael's eldest brother, Sonny, who was gunned down in the first film. Vincent, now a young man, is looking to find his place in the family. Like his father, he is quick to anger and has little restraint in lashing out at his enemies, which we see most forcefully when Michael encourages him to bury the hatchet with New York boss Joey Zaza (Joe Mantegna) and instead bites off part of his ear. Garcia has a magnetic presence-he is arguably the best thing in the film-and the combination of his quickfire temperament, handsome face, and brutal willingness to do whatever it takes to secure his place makes him both hypnotic and terrifying. He essentially combines the characteristics of all the major Corleone figures: Vito's charming intelligence and drive, Sonny's violent temper, and Michael's focused ruthlessness. Unfortunately, the romantic relationship he develops with Mary never rises to the prominence it has within the narrative because Garcia and Coppola have little on-screen chemistry.
In the end, Coppla's reworking of Part III into Coda is unlikely to change anyone's mind. Those who find value in it will still find value, and those who think it fails to live up to Coppola's best work will likely still hold that opinion. The changes Coppola has made are interesting, and I am glad that he got the chance to make them and bring the film closer to what he and Mario Puzo originally intended, although I am not sure they have a significant effect on the overall experience of the film. It is still a film worth seeing, especially for the way it brings all the final threads together in epilogue-like fashion, which is precisely what Coppola intended.
Copyright 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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