Saturday, December 17, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 30
Writer: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola w/ Michael Herr (adaptation), Joseph Conrad (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Note: As with the other films on the AFI Top 100 which have alternate or extended editions, this article will be discussing the original theatrical version.
“Apocalypse Now” is a grand, angry, flawed film that goes deep and cerebral just when you expect it to get even louder and more bombastic. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to try just about anything to underline a point or create a sense of dread, and the audaciousness of the filmmakers leaves a huge impact on the viewer. It’s big in every sense of the word.
We first meet Captain Ben Willard in his bedroom while he’s having a slight nervous breakdown after his experiences in the Vietnam War. He’s brought into a room of higher-ups and given a super-secret mission to cross the Vietnam border into Cambodia and find a Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has apparently gone insane, murdered a bunch of people and is now regarded by the natives as a god among men. Willard must kill him.
Screenwriters John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola (also the director) transport Joseph Conrad’s novel from Africa to Vietnam, and though it follows the general beats of the book, it transcends it to become its own being. I mention this because I really dislike Conrad’s work—which is racist and barely makes dime-store insights into human suffering—and wonder why it’s consistently in print and taught in colleges when there are so many other, worthier, works from that timeframe that merit exposure and revisiting.
But I must admit that the structure and premise of the original is a good one, and it was a smart move to keep that, as the build-up to the introduction of Kurtz is at once menacing and tantalizing. Willard goes through a dossier of his life and decisions, trying desperately to make sense of who this guy is and what made him go crazy (or has he simply regained his sanity in an insane world?), and develops a deep respect for him before he even meets him.
Willard is sent up a river with four other soldiers for support, and every time they make a stop or take a detour the result seems to be a classic sequence. The best is still where we are introduced to surfing fanatic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who invades an outpost simply because he wants to surf the beach (the waves break both ways). Here is the iconic “March of the Valkyries” action sequence, which retains all of its original power because you can tell there are no miniatures or trick shots used. Shit is really blowing up and these helicopters are really flying in formation. This realism makes the sequence epic, and that’s true about everything in the film. When the boat moves under a downed plane, or we see helicopters still smoldering in trees, we know that the actors are interacting with scale models, and the results are very impactful. It all “feels” bigger than other war films and makes you believe the actors and their predicament more as a result.
There’s also the sequence where Willard and another soldier go hunting for mangos and appear to be ants among the gigantic foliage surrounding them (hello metaphor!). And the sequence where the ship’s chief is impaled. And the bombing of the bridge. Each set-piece is excellent, long enough to resonate but short enough to not be too much of a distraction from the journey to Kurtz. The one sequence that doesn’t work is the detour with the Playboy Playmates, who eventually cause a riot thanks to their thrusting and boobies. It’s the only time where we expect the riot as soon as the women appear, and Milius and Coppola do not try to reverse our expectations.
Just who the hell is this Kurtz? What do we expect? Big budget action movies have taught us that war movies invariably end with lots of explosions and blood, but all of a sudden the boat reaches Kurtz’s home, which is a Buddhist temple. There’s a beautiful scene where all the natives of the town seem to have created a gate by standing on small ships in front of the temple, and they slowly part for Willard’s ship. And suddenly the movie goes cerebral. It’s a ballsier move than the viewer expects, that’s for sure, and I love the way the film underscores that, while Kurtz is a god among these people, his life is still very empty. It’s as if he’s seen or felt something he’s still coming to terms with, and just describing pieces of it to those nearby alters their lives completely.
This thinking-man’s third act underlines the major flaw with the film, which is that I just don’t care if Willard lives or dies. I want to see him get to Kurtz, sure, but that’s more because I want to meet Kurtz, not because I have some emotional investment in Willard. He’s a broken, horrible person, and the voiceover work that is written by Michael Herr seems to underscore this while still trying to make him human. It’s futile. I cared more about his shipmates than I did him, and when he does take Kurtz’s life at the climax, you feel as if Willard did not “deserve” to do it. A stronger man should have done it. But as I write this, I must say the fault is in the writing, not Sheen’s performance, which is aces.
Look at the AFI Top 100’s other serious meditation of the Vietnam War, “Platoon.” There I grew to care a lot for Chris and was deeply invested in whether or not he lived or died. It’s just not so for Willard. I think that “Apocalypse Now” is a better work of art than “Platoon,” but I also think the latter is a better film, if that makes any sort of sense.
The movie is long, and feels that way, and Coppola uses the epic nature of the war to create an intimate portrait of the enigma that is Kurtz. Brando’s performance isn’t a “performance”—he’s reciting the lines without much inflection either way and lets the lighting be the emotion his face lacks. The dialogue is great (“There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.”), but Milius and Coppola will not give us any answers. Is he God? The devil? A man who has stared into the abyss and come back? Not come back? A little of everything? How seriously are we supposed to take his words?
Whether or not Kurtz represents God or Satan, Vietnam itself is hell, no question about it. It strips the men who are within its borders (both American and Vietnamese) from who they really are, leaving a shell filled with fury and confusing. There’s no future for Willard—he’s been too warped by his experience. “Apocalypse Now” is unafraid to stare this sad fact in the face, uncompromisingly. It’s a transcendent experience with deep flaws that bring you back to earth shaken.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2