Originally released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III was never going to live up to expectations. Maybe because it wasn’t so much a failure as a missed opportunity, it became a movie that both fans and critics remade in their heads over the decades. Even writer-director Francis Ford Coppola has indulged in various edits of his oft-maligned film, from when it was first released on DVD in 2001 to a “new” version called The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, available on Blu-ray and various digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, December 8. The first two parts of The Godfather—made in the early 1970s and winning nine Oscars between them, including two Best Picture awards—are, together, the Great American Epic, a grand, six-hour noir in which the femme fatale is the Statue of Liberty. With the rise of a crime family paralleling the rise of the American dream, the parts were already melded into a single legend in the audience’s mind by the time the third part came along almost two decades later (both in real time and the narrative time line).
The Godfather: Part III was accompanied from the outset by a slight whiff of desperation. Coppola openly admitted at the time to needing the money. The studio was unwilling to pay Robert Duvall what he deserved to return. Coppola’s daughter, Sofia—just 18 at the time and doomed to unjustly become the film’s scapegoat—was cast in the role that Winona Ryder abandoned at the last minute. (Sofia’s success as a filmmaker in her own right has been her best revenge.) Worst of all, a struggling Paramount pushed to get the film out as quickly and cheaply as possible. An uneven movie hiding a better one, Godfather III is still full of great things, which are surely what lured Coppola back.
The biggest change with Coda comes at the beginning, where a scene between mafioso Michael Corleone and an archbishop has been moved up half an hour. Coppola has also cut the film back from nearly three hours to about two and a half, probably due to common complaints by critics that the movie is too long, which isn’t actually the case. A narrative can seem too long when, in fact, it’s too short—when the pace is so frantic in an attempt to keep viewers’ attention in an ADHD culture that the story’s emotional stakes are not sufficiently established.
The biggest and most irrecoverable problem with Godfather III, however, is its godfather. Of the many great things in the first two movies, nothing is greater than Al Pacino’s performance of war hero Michael Corleone transforming into a nihilistic mobster, as supreme a piece of acting as any in American film, ironically Oscarless even as it’s bookended by two Oscar-winning performances by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. In Part III, Pacino’s performance is never bad; often he’s very good. But by that point in his career, Pacino had turned into an outsize actor. It doesn’t make sense for his Michael—this Cain who slew Abel, sitting alone outside in the shadows at the end of Part II—to be an outsize character. He’s portrayed as a larger-than-life “Uncle Mikey” who cracks Tony Bennett jokes, and that’s a misconception of character that can’t be salvaged in the editing room.
Understandably, the release of Coda will lead audiences to expect a different movie. So I have to report that I’ve watched both Coda and the original Part III back to back, and, other than the first scene, damned if I can tell much difference. At this point, there are some half a dozen iterations of the film among the various video, DVD, and cable channel versions, whose distinctions are nuanced at best. The closest to definitive is the 170-minute DVD/Blu-ray that came out in 2008. It has an extra eight minutes of texture, lyricism, and sweep, and it echoes most resonantly the “I believe in America” credo that’s muttered in the first Godfather’s opening shadows before we even know who’s speaking. Ultimately, Coda is an alternate version of a movie that was an alternate version to begin with, a fever dream of Michael’s future in lieu of the void to which he’s clearly doomed.