The most marginally rewatchable movie?

Written on July 9, 2022

I think the quality of a movie is highly correlated — but not perfectly correlated — with how rewatchable the movie is. There are great movies that I never want to watch again (Raging Bull, A Separation) and there are lesser movies that I find difficult to turn off once I catch a snippet (yes, the Austin Powers trilogy…).

An interesting question is: what’s the most marginally rewatchable movie? What movie gets the most incremental value from repeated viewings?

To me there is one answer head and shoulders above all others: The Godfather, Part II.(Spoilers abound ahead).

Movies often employ dramatic irony, in which “the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.” We as viewers might know a plot point (e.g., the briefcases were switched out!) that is unknown to the characters, and we see the characters make mistakes that lead to their downfall in the absence of perfect information. The Godfather, Part II (subsequently G2) gives us the converse of dramatic irony: the characters know things that we don’t, and we as the viewers struggle to find our footing in the absence of perfect information — at least on the first watch.

G2 has a split timeline — we see the story of the young Vito Corleone in 1917 intercut with the story of Michael Corleone in 1958, after the events of The Godfather. The 50s section is primarily told from the point of view of Michael. Early in the movie he survives an assassination attempt, which kicks off the plot. Michael visits the mob boss Hyman Roth and tells Roth that Michael’s ally Frank Pentangeli is behind the attempt. Soon we see someone attempt to kill Pentangeli and we assume it’s Michael — the assassin tells Pentangeli that “Michael Corleone says hello!” (There’s a minor controversy about this confusing line, which fans of the movie are still discussing.)

We later learn that Roth, not Pentangeli, ordered the assassination attempt on Michael and Pentangeli. And we learn that Michael knew the entire time that Roth had attempted to kill him; when he visits Roth and tells him that Pentangeli is behind the hit, it’s part of his broader plan to reassert his strength and kill Roth.

So we have Michael weaving a web of lies that takes several hours to untangle. Because of this the plot of the movie is basically impossible to fully understand on first watch. (Perhaps this is one reason it got middling reviews upon release but is now regarded as one of the best of all time). There’s a huge midsection of the movie where we as the viewer don’t know what actually happened, until we get to the end and all is revealed. Even then it still requires some mental effort to put all the pieces together!

The second (and subsequent) times we watch G2, we can now start to take on the point of view of Michael. We now know that when he visits Hyman Roth, he’s lying. We know that Roth is also lying. We can see the machinations of Michael now in real-time: we can follow the true action and try to think as he thinks. It’s essentially a different movie because the experience of the plot and the characterization is so wildly different.

This is a bit of gimmick. But it somehow works because the greatness of G2 compels rewatching it. Every incremental viewing reveals new complexities.