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The Offer is a TV show about how great movies are

The Paramount+ show is less about the making of The Godfather than the miracle that movies ever get made.

Miles Teller, as Godfather producer Al Ruddy, sits and looks off-camera.
The Offer tries to tell the story of the making of The Godfather. But it mostly reminds us how great movies are.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Midway through the pilot episode of The Offer, future Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy (Miles Teller) is sitting in a movie theater with his girlfriend, gaping at the audience around him, who are gasping at the famously shocking concluding moments of Planet of the Apes. It’s 1968, and Ruddy is fresh off Hogan’s Heroes, the TV show he co-created. But TV bores him. He wants more. He wants the big screen.

“It’s not just about the ending, it’s about the experience of it,” he tells his girlfriend. Waxing enthusiastic about the collective emotion of movie theaters, he concludes that you “can’t get that experience in television. You’re just sitting in your living room, looking at a fucking box.”

Now, of course, to actually watch this scene, you have to look at that same effing box, or maybe your laptop or your phone, all visible at that moment through a thick scrim of irony. But The Offer, a show that’s less about how one of the greatest big-screen films in history was made than how it almost wasn’t made, seems comfortable with the contradiction. Throughout its 10-episode runtime — available, with even more irony, only on the Paramount+ streaming service — various characters trot onscreen to extol daring cinema and denigrate television and brainless movies. Legendary Paramount head of production Robert Evans (played in an absolutely virtuosic turn by Matthew Goode) gives a couple of lengthy speeches about the magic of cinema. Ruddy tells a group of FBI agents that “TV’s too limiting. You can’t do real stories on TV.”

Matthew Goode as Paramount head of production Robert Evans in The Offer.

Which means it’s almost as interesting as an artifact of our time, when movies and TV are in flux, as it is as a story about 1970s Hollywood. I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t fascinated by Hollywood minutiae really watching The Offer, which isn’t to say they shouldn’t try. It’s uneven, but a handful of solid performances anchor it — Juno Temple (as Ruddy’s plucky assistant Bettye McCartt), and Dan Fogler (who makes a surprisingly good Francis Ford Coppola), and the go-for-broke Goode — with a fine showing by Teller, as Ruddy is the ostensible center of the show.

In fact, the title credits declare that the show is based on Ruddy’s memories of making The Godfather, which is an uncommon credit to see. Most writing on the movie’s legendary production, from newspaper profiles to books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, has focused on Coppola’s role in driving the project forward. But while Coppola gets plenty of screen time here, it’s Ruddy who’s our main character. The pilot (perhaps the weakest of the episodes) cruises through several years inside of an hour, apparently in an attempt to explain why Ruddy got involved in the Paramount circus to begin with.

The net effect can at times tip over into listening to an old Hollywood hand tell mildly unbelievable war stories for 10 hours, though much of what appears in The Offer sticks, in broad outlines, to the tales others have told. Ruddy got pulled into making The Godfather as a low-budget specialist at Paramount, even though his most recent picture, the 1970 Robert Redford biker flick Little Fauss and Big Halsy, was a bit of a flop. Paramount had acquired rights before publication to Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, but didn’t really want to make it, fearing that it would fail like so many other recent mobster films; once the book became a runaway bestseller, Evans realized they’d better do it.

But the experience for everyone seems to have been somewhere between herding cats and cosplaying Sisyphus. Everything was a debacle. Casting Marlon Brando (considered both a legend and a has-been) and Al Pacino (considered an absolute nobody) seemed impossible. Wrangling locations — not to mention Coppola himself — was a headache. Tangling with executives at Paramount parent company Gulf and Western, irate crew members fed up with their no-name director, and the literal mafia were enough to test the patience of a saint, let alone a movie producer.

Miles Teller and Juno Temple in The Offer.

Furthermore, The Offer paints production of The Godfather as a trying time that ultimately created a band of brothers — not without interpersonal friction, but in that everybody came to respect one another and be proud of the work they did. The reality is a bit messier. For instance, Evans and Coppola were so profoundly angry at one another by the end of the post-production process that Coppola initially tried to get them to hire Martin Scorsese to direct The Godfather: Part II. Years later, he was still brooding, sending a letter to Evans in the early ’80s about how angry he was that Evans had taken credit for the film’s final form. (Evans framed the letter and hung it in his bathroom.)

Other examples like this abound, if you dig into Godfather history, and even a quick look at Ruddy’s own public work history shows how much personal myth-making is involved. (The show portrays him as just a computer programmer for a defense contractor who kind of stumbled into show business, but he in fact worked for Warner Bros. before he became a programmer; he left when Marlon Brando’s father hired him to produce Wild Seed, not when he landed Hogan’s Heroes, as the show suggests.)

But, artistic license is hard to fault, especially when it’s the nitpicking details of the producer’s career. The overarching sense you get from The Offer is that it is remarkable that any movie is ever successful or good or, indeed, even gets made. If you see a movie that’s good, you’re watching a miracle.

Which might be why The Offer’s greatest service is to remind us that The Godfather is, really, that good. (And so is at least one of its sequels; judge for yourself, as all three are also streaming on Paramount+.) It pushed boundaries artistically, narratively, and technically, and viewers responded, making it the biggest movie in history upon its release. Something about its story, which shifted from Puzo’s juicy potboiler to something far more insightful and allegorical about America, resonates deeply. Get lucky enough to catch it on a big screen, and it feels as exciting as it must have at the film’s premiere.

The show knows, and doesn’t get in the way. It does that, in part, by not trying to be nearly as good as its predecessor, with its daring lighting and cinematography, its uniformly outstanding performances, and its sense of epic scale. When it does pay self-conscious homage to Coppola’s film, it’s in winking references (you’ll get a line about a cannoli in the first couple of minutes). There are several different sequences that cut violence scenes together with more domestic ones, in tribute to the famous assassination-and-baptism scene in the film. But you don’t feel the episodes’ directors stretching beyond the somewhat goofy limits of the show, and that’s probably to its credit.

A huge film crew in 70s garb.
On the set of The Godfather ... in The Offer.

Yet it does seem oddly self-aware that it’s a TV show bent on promoting cinema (and, in particular, this instance of cinema). All that aforementioned ragging on TV and effusing about the magic of the movies seems purposeful, and reaches levels we usually only hear on stage at the Oscars.

Of course, the 1970s were a different time for both film and TV. Hollywood was riding a strange fault line, existing in a brief and often-valorized pocket of time in which visionaries like Coppola and Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman and Warren Beatty and Paul Schrader and a host of others were running the show, making the most exciting movies. There was a lot wrong with that time — only certain sorts of white guys got to talk executives into making their films — but there was something right, too, with exciting and daring movies showing eager audiences what movies could do. “We can’t chase after what the audience wants to see,” Evans says in one triumphant scene late in the show. “We need to show it what it needs to see.”

Meanwhile, TV was still largely working within formulas; storytelling innovations that we now take for granted were far off. That’s not to say it wasn’t great in its own way, or that incredible artists weren’t working in the medium. But the barrier between film and TV talents was much higher and more rigid.

Yet we’re in a totally different media landscape now, and Paramount itself is, like every major entertainment company, trying to figure out what it is going to be. Just two months ago, the movie studio’s parent company, created in 2019 when Viacom merged with CBS, rebranded itself as Paramount Global, after its most prestigious property. Paramount+ itself was first launched in 2014 as CBS All Access and renamed in March 2021. And like every company, they’re trying to figure out the right balance between traditional TV, streaming shows, and big-screen movies that eventually migrate back over to the streaming service. Nobody knows how this will all shake out, but the jitters in Hollywood right now are at a high that rivals the jitters back in Robert Evans’s day.

Matthew Goode and Miles Teller as Robert Evans and Al Ruddy in The Offer.

Which is why diving back into its history to reinforce the brand probably makes sense. As the movie rewrites and refines bits of Godfather history, it spins and smooths out its film’s legend, declaring by the end that the film is widely considered “the best” movie in history. That’s debatable (if you’re speaking of Hollywood, at least, then Citizen Kane would like a word), though there’s no doubt it’s one of them. But as Charlie Bluhdorn (Burn Gorman), president of Gulf and Western and gadfly presence on the set, confides to Evans late in the show, he loves historical movies because they allow you to rewrite history. “Maybe that’s how we can deal with the horror,” he suggests, and while it’s not exactly horror The Offer rewrites, you can kind of see the point. The legend you put on screen is, eventually, more important to the average person than whatever the history books say — both a useful observation and, depending on your perspective, a terrifying one.

And that could be why The Offer’s villains aren’t really the various mobsters and entertainers (cough cough Frank Sinatra) who tried to block The Godfather’s production a half-century ago. They’re the executives who are more interested in chasing what they already know the audience wants than taking a chance on a movie like, well, The Godfather.

The Offer serves up a legend, too. It’s the story of a time in America when movies were king, when the big screen was something to yearn for, when risk might bring reward, when the collective experience was worth breaking your budget and your heart over. That Paramount has chosen to retell that story with a little bit of finessing and artistic license in a time when big-screen movies are hurting badly, when studios are chasing what they think the audience wants to see whether they need to see it or not, feels like a poke in someone’s eye. By the end, I kind of wondered whether it was their own.

The first three episodes of The Offer began streaming on Paramount+ on April 28. The remaining episodes will release on successive Thursdays through June 16.