The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone fixes all of The Godfather Part III’s problems – except one

The Godfather Part III celebrates its 30th anniversary this month and co-writer/director Francis Ford Coppola is commemorating this milestone by releasing an entirely new version of the movie. This might sound a little…unconventional, but it won’t come as much of a surprise to cinephiles, considering that Part III is widely regarded as the weak link in the otherwise acclaimed Godfather trilogy.

Sure, Part III notched up a respectable haul of award nominations – most notably, Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nods – and Al Pacino is as good as ever as ageing Mafia don Michael Corleone. But critics and audiences alike agree that Part III is a pale imitation of its predecessors. Common criticisms include its overstuffed, unengaging plot and the underwhelming performance by Ford Coppola’s daughter (and future superstar director) Sofia, a reluctant, untrained actress who filled the Mary Corleone role at the last minute as a favour to her old man.

That’s why, three decades later, Ford Coppola has revisited Part III with The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, reinstating Part III’s original working title to better manage viewer expectations and pulling together an entirely new edit to tighten up the plot and craft a more effective turn from Coppola junior. The early buzz is that he’s succeeded, with pre-release reviews hailing Coda as a considerably more rewarding experience than the cut screened in 1990, and a more fitting finale to the franchise.

There’s just one problem – one fatal flaw that Part III and Coda share that no amount of narrative chopping and changing can fix. And that problem has a name: Tom Hagen.

Wait – who is Tom Hagen, again?

If you aren’t a die-hard fan of author Mario Puzo’s The Godfather novel or Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather movies inspired by it, you might not immediately remember who Tom Hagen is. So, to quickly recap, Hagen is the Corleone crime family’s consigliere – basically, he’s the guy who advises the don, his right-hand man and most trusted confidante.

More importantly, Hagen is also an unofficial Corleone. A German/Irish orphan, he was introduced to the family through Michael’s older brother, Sonny, and informally adopted by their father, Vito. For all intents and purposes, he and Michael are brothers, and by the end of The Godfather Part II, they’re the only Corleone boys still alive.

This sibling bond – coupled with The Godfather and The Godfather Part II painting an increasingly strained relationship between Michael and Tom – makes Hagen’s involvement in Part III seem like an absolute no-brainer. What better way to bring the trilogy full circle than by exploring the Michael/Tom dynamic more fully, in the same way that The Godfather showcased his bond with Sonny and Part II charted his spectacular falling out with Fredo?

Yet when The Godfather Part III finally arrived, Tom Hagen was conspicuously absent – his nonappearance attributed to his off-screen death sometime after Part II but prior to Part III. If this seems like a huge creative blunder on Ford Coppola’s part, it’s important to note that it wasn’t his decision or (really) his fault: star Robert Duvall refused to reprise the Hagen role when invited to return.

But then, most of us probably would have baulked at a third go-round too, in Duvall’s shoes. See, Duvall was content to earn less than Pacino (given Pacino was the star of the show); he was even prepared to earn half as much as his co-star. However, when Duvall was offered three or four times less cash to appear – despite being an Academy Award winner and a huge audience draw in his own right – that was more than he could stomach and he bowed out.

Unwilling to recast the Hagen role and too cash-strapped to abandoned the project, Ford Coppola had no choice but to scrap the initial treatment that he and Puzo had developed for Part III based on the assumption that Duvall would be onboard. Together, they hastily reworked the story to remove Hagen and function less as a fully-fledged concluding chapter and more of a protracted denouement.

And here The Godfather Part III’s troubles began…

Why is Tom Hagen’s absence in The Godfather Part III such a big deal?

The problem with leaving Tom Hagen out of The Godfather Part III is as simple as it is significant: without him, that’s not really much of a story.

For Part III to work both on its own terms and as the final stage in Michael Corleone’s character arc, he needs to come into outright conflict with Tom. Not only does Hagen rival his adopted brother intellectually, but crucially, he’s Michael’s emotional and (relative) moral antithesis.

Because of this, their feud would make for a richer narrative that focused less on sensationalist but ultimately hollow Vatican shenanigans and more on how irredeemable Michael is. I mean, what could make that more obvious than watching Michael go to war with the brother he supposedly loves to maintain control over the underworld empire he’s always claimed to despise?

As soon as you take Tom out of the equation, all you’re left with is Michael on his own – and a film that could just barely justify its existence arriving on the heels of one cinema’s most perfectly formed duologies starts to look a whole less worthwhile. That’s what it really boils down to, here: both Part III and Coda are essentially pointless movies.

Ford Coppola can retitle Part III all he wants, but movies aren’t books: you can’t expect people to sit through a 2 and a half hour+ flick – let alone the sequel to two of the greatest films of all time – that’s basically the big screen equivalent of a novel’s closing chapter. We need more than that; that’s why we needed Tom Hagen, and that’s why without him, we don’t need a third Godfather instalment, whether that’s Part III or Coda.

The Godfather, Coda is an exciting exercise in futility

The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is an undeniably exciting prospect for movie buffs and a welcome opportunity for Francis Ford Coppola to salvage The Godfather Part III’s legacy-tarnishing reputation. In the end, though, Coda is a futile exercise in trying to save a movie that can’t ever be saved – and it’s all down to Tom Hagen.


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