There are, broadly speaking, two ways to convey conflict: implicitly and explicitly.
The former involves illustrating some kind of dissonance through setting, silence, the way one character looks at another.
The latter involves someone saying ‘I hate you’, punching, or a deliberate explosion.
THE GODFATHER PART 2 is rich in both implicit and explicit conflict, and today we’re going to examine how its opening sequence delivers a veritable masterclass in conflict-generation…
Categories/Types of Conflict
Further to this, it’s well-known that there are three core types or categories of conflict that writers and filmmakers have at their disposal:
- INTERNAL Conflict (conflict within a person, when they’re undecided, or are afflicted in some way by internal forces)
- INTERPERSONAL Conflict (conflict between two people or sometimes groups of factions of people)
- EXTERNAL Conflict (conflict that’s bigger or wider or deeper than the character: ie. acts of God, time, political, physical or geographic forces)
The opening Lake Tahoe sequence in THE GODFATHER PART 2 is a masterclass in both implicit and explicit conflict, across all three types, which we analyse below.
In total, Puzo and Coppola manage to cram in fully 9 conflict threads, proving that if you can write succinctly, you can say an awful lot in not many pages.
The 9 Conflict Threads in THE GODFATHER PART 2 Opening Sequence
Puzo and Coppola manage to introduce 9 key conflict threads in a 30 minute sequence, which is incredible (at the most basic level, story functions by presenting a main character with a problem – THE GODFATHER PART 2 takes its main character, douses him in gasoline and flings him dramatically out of the frying pan).
What’s even more impressive is how seamlessly these conflicts are intertwined, and how every element of each scene feeds into them in some way.
Let’s break them down in order of introduction:
Conflict Thread #1: Past vs Present (External Conflict)
Of course, the Lake Tahoe sequence isn’t in itself the opening of the film, just the 1958-9, Michael-Corleone-focused half of the narrative. THE GODFATHER PART 2 opens with:
- A brief shot of Michael as a guest kisses him on the hand. Michael’s power is established.
- Back to Sicily in 1901 and the funeral of Vito Andolini’s murdered father. The seed for Vito’s desire for revenge.
- Vito running, making it to America at age 9 and going through cold, unpleasant immigration processing. A conflict of heritage: he’s an outsider here.
These beats are worth noting because a version of each of them comes into play during the Lake Tahoe party.
This sets up THE GODFATHER PART 2’s ongoing conflict of past and present by inviting the question: ‘What has changed and what hasn’t?’
For example, Michael’s power is the long-term consequence of Vito’s rags to riches struggle, and it’s an impressive arc. However, when Geary says this to him –
‘I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, trying to pass yourselves off as decent Americans.’
-we learn the Corleones are still outsiders, in conflict with the systems and practices of the country around them, a conflict that’s survival is emphasised by the huge change in status from 9-year-old Vito to Don Michael.
As for the ‘revenge’, it is echoed by Frank Pentangeli’s desire to kill the Rosato brothers. In 1901, Don Ciccio makes the choice to kill Vito for fear that, when older, Vito may seek revenge for the death of his father.
Vito’s escape comes to prove that fear well founded. In 1958, Michael decides not to kill the Rosato brothers, which will come back and bite him in unwanted areas. Add to these the repeated mentions of the deceased Vito –
‘Cien d’anno. Means we should all live happily for a hundred years. The family. Would be true if my father was alive.’
‘Your father did business with Hyman Roth. Your father respected Hyman Roth. But your father never trusted Hyman Roth.’
-and mentions of –
‘New York. The old days, huh?’
-and Puzo and Coppola perfectly construct, in a kind of mosaic, one of the central conflicts of the film.
The past is the past; there’s a new, less experienced man in charge, and he’s not his father.
Conflict Thread #2: Connie vs Her Family (Interpersonal Conflict)
THE GODFATHER PART 2 is rife with familial conflict, some of it more than clearly stated, but the Lake Tahoe sequence introduces it quite passively.
It’s the particular dynamic through which the sparsity of Puzo and Coppola’s dialogue really shines.
Connie arrives at the party at the very start of the sequence. As her and Merl go to greet Carmela (Connie’s mother), Carmela, rather than greeting them, simply refers them to the nearby Father Carmelo.
‘Look who’s here.’
When she then does greet them, she turns away from Connie’s kiss and responds to Merl’s with:
‘Yeah, hello. How are you? Thank you.’
When Connie gives her a gift she barely looks at it, angles herself at the table to cut Merl out of the conversation and berates Connie for not seeing her children.
‘You go see your children first, and then you worry about waiting on line to see your brother, like everybody else.’
Aside from further establishing Michael’s power – even his family have to wait in line to see him – Carmela’s reaction gives us a sense of Connie as a kind of family liability, while her iciness toward Merl implicitly tells us that either:
- she knows him but doesn’t like him
- she doesn’t know him, but knows she won’t like him, implying he’s one in a string of similar guys
The latter proves to be true, but the point is that this brief exchange reveals so much of the Corleones’ family conflict beyond what is stated outright:
- Carmela’s annoyance that Connie didn’t come sooner hints they don’t see each other often.
- ‘Like everybody else’ implies Connie tends to expect preferential treatment.
- Her reaction to the gift implies this is the latest in a long line of cheap attempts by Connie to buy her family’s love while getting away with mooching.
It is left up to the implications of the dialogue, the manner and actions of the actors to convey this conflict, but the beauty of the writing comes in the way this implicit conflict pays off explicitly a few scenes later between Michael and Connie:
- We learn that Connie travels and wastes family money, clarifying Carmela’s anger at her being a week late.
- Her blunt, shameless request for money is concrete proof that she expects preferential treatment.
- The fact she openly appears to consider leaving Merl at Michael’s request reinforces that same fickle, manipulative nature implied by the gift.
Conflict Thread #3: Michael vs Senator Geary (Interpersonal Conflict)
There’s also a hint of internal conflict intertwined with this one: that between the public and private persona.
It’s an interesting part of the power dynamic in THE GODFATHER PART 2, first comes into play with Senator Geary’s speech, and is the perfect illustration of the interplay between implicit and explicit conflict.
The speech itself provides the former. Geary stumbles over his words about Nevada, has to read Anthony’s name from a piece of paper (and mispronounces it) and calls Kay ‘Pat’.
The whole thing reads disingenuous, and we are immediately aware that the views he is expressing are likely not those he holds in private, introducing the conflict.
This is then made explicit a scene later in his interaction with Michael, during which he insults and attempts to blackmail his host.
‘I intend to squeeze you.’
The initial, implicit set up of this conflict is crucial because it ensures that when the senator says:
‘I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself.’
-and Michael accuses him of being ‘a part of the same hypocrisy’ as him, we know full well it’s true.
We’ve seen the evidence.
The senator’s saccharine exchange with Kay when he leaves Michael’s office hammers it home.
Also worth noting is the beautifully subtle moment when the senator repositions a model cannon on Michael’s desk such that it points directly at Michael.
Conflict Thread #4: Michael vs Tom Hagen (Interpersonal Conflict)
The concision of the writing in THE GODFATHER PART 2 is on display again during Michael’s meeting with Johnny Ola, not in the content of the meeting itself, but in an incredibly brief interaction with Tom Hagen.
Michael tells him to leave the room indirectly:
‘Tom isn’t going to sit in with us Johnny.’
Hagen responds with a curt:
‘You need anything Mike, I’ll be outside, alright?’
-drawing attention to the fact he’s shut out of the meeting. It demonstrates an apparent lack of respect from Michael, and the fact that Hagen, while hurt, sucks it up and soldiers on.
These two almost non-lines do so much work in forming the basis for the poignancy of the scene in which Michael asks Tom to take over while he’s away, post assassination attempt.
We understand why Tom is so emotional because, as this brief exchange shows, he isn’t remotely expecting the enormous trust and respect Michael suddenly shows him. Again, fantastically succinct writing that still conveys so much.
Conflict Thread #5: Fredo vs Deanna (Interpersonal Conflict)
This is a conflict that may not seem significant within the narrative of THE GODFATHER PART 2 in and of itself, yet it sets up one of the film’s most important dynamics. The conflict is established visually: Fredo’s wife Deanna is dancing flirtatiously with another man while he watches from the sidelines.
Right away this sets up Fredo’s lack of control, his relegation to the sidelines, which proves the basis for his betrayal later on.
Equally significant is the fact that, unable to control her, Fredo must rely on Michael to resolve the situation. This is essential to Michael’s line toward the end of the Lake Tahoe sequence, as he hands power over to Tom:
‘Fredo… he’s got a good heart. But he’s weak and he’s stupid.’
Fredo’s helplessness in the conflict with Deanna ensures that this line rings true, and it is a line that, of course, comes into play massively later on, not just because Fredo’s betrayal reaffirms the ‘weakness’ and ‘stupidity’ but because Michael’s eventual reaction – having his brother killed – proves how little the ‘good heart’ really matters. Business always wins.
The structure of the Lake Tahoe sequence, the series of brief, succinct scenes, is such that this moment isn’t given the weight it then gains in hindsight.
This is the brilliance of the writing.
No specific exchange is spotlighted as being crucial above any other, meaning that the audience never sees an image or hears a line and goes ‘Well that’s what the third act’s gonna be about then.’ It’s only looking back that we see the red flag being waved gracefully in our face.
Conflict Thread #6: Michael vs Frank Pentangeli (Interpersonal Conflict)
Undoubtedly a part of the ‘Past vs Present’ conflict, but nonetheless a crucial thread in its own right. What’s notable in this scene (bar the aforementioned) is the content of Michael and Frank’s discussion in the context of the film as a whole.
The conflict hinges on loyalty. Frank is upset at Michael’s apparent loyalty to Hyman Roth:
‘You’ll give your loyalty to a jew before your own blood.’
It’s a dynamic that is repeatedly turned on its head throughout the film. Here, Michael’s loyalty is questioned, but, later in the film, Fredo’s betrayal, Kay’s secret decision to have an abortion, and Pentangeli’s decision to testify against Michael suggest that it is loyalty to rather than from him that proves the most fragile.
This scene is therefore putting in a lot of work: it is, essentially, the basis for the film’s central theme. Its repeated subversion forms the basis of a huge chunk of the film’s drama, yet watching it for the first time you’d have no idea. This is testament to the nuance of the writing style.
Conflict Thread #7: Michael vs Kay (Interpersonal Conflict)
Coppola and Puzo build this conflict implicitly through what we don’t see, namely ‘Michael actually speaking to his wife.’ Once we do see them interact, the visual is cleverly set at odds with their exchange.
They are dancing, apparently content from a distance, but Kay’s responses seem monotone, distant, reinforcing the conflict – set up through Senator Geary – between private and public personas. Once we get the line-
‘It made me think of what you once told me: “In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate.” That was seven years ago.’
-we realise just how deep this particular conflict runs. It’s something we can see quite clearly through the writers’ choice of setting.
The supposed nature of the event – a celebration of Anthony Corleone’s first communion – runs in conflict with the event itself:
- There are hundreds of people.
- There are guards.
- There’s a senator.
The ‘premise’ of the party doesn’t seem to warrant any of those, so we’re led to think Michael is using a familial veneer to cover up shady business. This briefest of exchanges with Kay confirms exactly that: Michael puts his business responsibilities ahead of his familial ones, straining his personal relationships.
Conflict Thread #8: Michael vs “Business” (External/Interpersonal Conflict)
This refers to the assassination attempt on Michael, which is about as explicit as conflict gets. Though it later proves to be personally motivated, we can deem it ‘external’ as it stands in this sequence, as it seemingly comes from nowhere to disrupt Michael’s apparent control.
If we are to look at the film from a traditional structural perspective, we can probably label the assassination attempt ‘the inciting incident’, and it is the moment that pays off the conflict work laid out in the opening of THE GODFATHER PART 2.
So many of the beats thus far feed into it. Michael’s power is set up throughout the prior conflicts:
- Past vs Present: His status compared to young Vito’s
- Connie vs Family: Connie has to wait to see him/ he controls Connie’s finances
- Michael vs Tom: The way he gets Tom to leave the room
- Fredo vs Deanna: the way he has Fredo’s wife removed from the party
- Michael vs Geary: Telling the Senator that his offer is ‘Nothing’.
The assassination needs to hit hard, dramatically speaking, and Puzo and Coppola ensure it does by constantly (yet subtly) reinforcing Michael’s power through these multiple conflicts, even in scenes where it’s not overtly relevant.
It goes deeper than this too, linking back to the role of setting. Michael is hosting a party, but we never see him simply talking with his guests. In fact, at the close of Senator Geary’s speech, as a choir sings a song specifically for Michael, he stands and leaves. The writing keeps spotlighting the fact that Michael is closed off, a difficult man to get to, which again feeds into the assassination attempt.
This is a hugely powerful and hugely ‘enclosed’ man – that’s what we’re told repeatedly – yet a hail of bullets just came through his bedroom window.
With this change of pace you might expect THE GODFATHER PART 2 to ramp up story-wise there and then, but, crucially, that’s not what the writers go for, which brings us to:
Conflict Thread #9: Family vs Business (Internal Conflict)
Puzo and Coppola give this explosive event (initially) calm consequences, forcing Michael to make a series of decisions that set his sense of family at odds with his role as Don Corleone. It’s a perfect example of multi-conflict storytelling. The assassination attempt gives us:
- Michael being forced to leave to deal with this potential betrayal (feeding the Kay vs Michael conflict)
- Michael handing the reigns to Tom, resolving earlier familial conflict and setting up more (the Fredo line)
- Michael leaving his son (perhaps the clearest illustration of his internal struggle)
The conflicts that fed the drama of that inciting incident are then fed right back by that same incident.
With so many conflicts at work in just this half an hour of THE GODFATHER PART 2, it’s amazing just how complementary they are.