The Great Debate: 'The Godfather' vs. 'The Godfather II'

The Great Debate is stirring up the sauce this month with a look at two classics from the 1970s. For the first time, we're arguing a classic and its sequel, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II." Prior to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the second "Godfather" was the only sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Most consider it to be just as good as the first, but our guest debater Vadim Rizov takes the opinion that the follow-up is actually superior. As it happens, I happen to think he's nuts, as I'm one of the few that thinks the second film is unnecessary. Let's see who makes a better case.

Jordan Hoffman, Team "Godfather": "The Godfather" isn't the better film simply because it is our first peek into this complex family and at its coded visual representation, but because all of the major emotional beats one is likely to find in "Part II" are already present in the first film. Everything from the family's Sicilian roots to Michael's reluctance to become a remorseless killer is already there in the first go-round. The follow-up is, in my opinion, wholly superfluous. What new ground is covered in the second film?

Vadim Rizov, Team "Godfather II": Some literal new ground's covered: Cuba, Ellis Island, Miami. If "The Godfather" is an exceptional piece of linear narrative, "The Godfather Part II" is more dazzling to me because of how it loops through time. You're totally right about the second film being "superfluous" in terms of giving us new or surprising information. But it's better (for me, anyway) because it spends more time confusing and surprising us about the information being received. I like to be confused.

Just the bookends of the film are better to me: those opening scenes of Vito's New York youth are godhead. As a piece of epic myth-making (and crowd control!), it's over the top, one-upping the first film's wedding sequence. Showy? Sure. Brilliant anyway? Absolutely. The end of the "The Godfather" is scary and intense, yes, but the end of "The Godfather Part II" makes me ten times sadder, bringing the whole series full circle: all this violence and loss stemming from one seemingly innocuous dinner.

The GodfatherHoffman, Team "Godfather": The cynic in me interprets that as Paramount's studio chiefs draining all the remaining narrative out of Puzo's original novel (the Don Fanucci stuff) and then saying, “Then we add in some 'where are they now!'" The big close with Fredo in the fishing boat is the same thing as Tessio getting whacked – and no disrespect to the late, great John Cazale, but few can beat Abe Vigoda's frown for emotional impact. Furthermore, Frank Pentangeli is no Clemenza, even with the raspy voice. Richard Castellano brings a much-needed humor and humanity that is completely non-existent in the second film. Lots of moody backlighting, sure, but almost no warmth. Does Michael's character grow at all in the second film? Does anyone's?

Rizov, Team "Godfather II": We keep coming back to this warmth thing, and I've gotta say I don't get it. It's a cold movie about a cold man who grows more tightly coiled as an empire collapses around him, requiring great violence to maintain order. Part of what bugs me about the first "Godfather," if I'm being honest, is the implication that there's some kind of human core I'm supposed to tap into, some likability that makes the violence all the more disturbing. But for me, it doesn't work like that: "Take the gun, leave the cannoli" is a good line, but the person who says that? I don't particularly care if they live or die, because that's a dangerous, amoral person who's only interesting as a kind of articulate monster. Does Michael grow? No. Do most people grow as they age? Not all the time. I think the coldness is both appropriate and more honest; there's a kind of sniggering, "Look what he just did" quality to the first film (that horse's head!) that's absent here.

Hoffman, Team "Godfather": You raise a good point. Maybe I'm simply incapable of embracing a film that's so bleak. Shame on you for being such a nihilist!

By the same token, you could turn that around and say that my need to graft humor and likeability on someone — like Clemenza showing Michael how to throw in in the right amount of pork to the sauce — is a willful blindness to evil that borders on being sociopathic.

So maybe Michael doesn't change because no one changes, but doesn't that at least mean that "Godfather II" is, if nothing else, repetitious? Or is this some sort of cyclical, "Tibetan Book of the Dead" ritual wherein all that has happened before must happen again? (P.S. Yes, I think I just equated the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" with the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica.")

And jumping off from Clemenza's sauce, does "Part II" have as much meat to it as the original? What are its memorable scenes? When I think of "The Godfather," I think of Sterling Hayden getting shot in the face, or the sit-down with Sollozzo, of Sonny on the Causeway, of Bonasera's monologue or of the Don in the orange grove. So many moments. When I think of "Part II," I flash on some images, but not thick juicy scenes. Am I just remembering wrong?

The Godfather IIRizov, Team "Godfather II": I can think of quite a few scenes in "Part II" that get me amped: young Vito on the rooftops, hiding a sack of guns; the Washington D.C. committee hearings devolving into farce as Pentangeli takes back his sworn testimony; Michael both witnessing and responding to Cuban rebellion ("I saw a strange thing today"); Connie telling Michael the truth about what happened to his baby (the one time the entire first two films she's as scary as he is; I wish there was more Scary Diane Keaton in film history in general).

I notice that none of these scenes are as quippy or quoted as the ones you name from "The Godfather." Not a knock on you, just to say that watching "The Godfather" can be tough because so much of it's been seen before you even watch it. I viewed the pair for the first time when I was 14 or so, and while watching the first one it was kind of like I was mentally ticking off the boxes on a checklist: oranges in place, horse's head accounted for, bloodily intercut finale duly operatic, everything represented as I'd read about. Maybe it's just harder for me to actually see the forest of the movie for the trees of its quotability; "The Godfather Part II," while certainly equally beloved, is easier to get lost in and surprised me.

But I'm evading your question! What's the meat in "The Godfather Part II"? To me, it's all the stuff (specifically, locations) outside of the family. You're right that we don't learn more about them, necessarily, but we learn so much more about the world around them; e.g. that D.C. stonewalling sequence is a hilarious, concise recap of the real-life mob hearings. And it has nothing to do with Michael Corleone's private struggle at a certain point; it's the world outside the family. To me, that's way more compelling than fraternal fallout.

Hoffman, Team "Godfather": I like your notion of the second film widening the circle away from the family we know and out into the world that they manipulate through their actions. And you are right about the first one being so beloved and quoted that it is difficult to approach it completely fresh. What this clearly means, Vadim, is that we all need to go back and rewatch "The Godfather Part III." Eventually someone will pipe up with a solid argument that that is the true masterpiece.

What about you, dear readers, is there a clear winner between these two films, or do you think they are equally matched?