Friday, November 25, 2011

Apocalypse Now (1979)

USA, 202 minutes (Redux, 2001)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Joseph Conrad, John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr
Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola
Editors: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Walter Murch
Cast: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Marlon Brando, Sam Bottoms, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, G.D. Spradlin, Francis Ford Coppola, Scott Glenn, Jack Thibeau, Herb Rice, Christian Marquand, Aurore Clement

Apocalypse Now has long been preceded by the legendary stories of its troubled production, one of those film enterprises that appears oddly cursed (The Exorcist is another), whose backstories may be nearly as entertaining as the final product itself: in this case, weathering a typhoon that wrecked the sets, condemnation from the Animal Humane Society for filming the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo, Marlon Brando at this stage in his career, and various haphazard budget overruns and casting adventures (e.g., Harvey Keitel dumped at the last minute for Martin Sheen, who subsequently suffered a heart attack during the shoot). All this and more is ably detailed in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which makes a worthy companion piece for a night of Apocalypse Now.

The final result is hardly flawless. Attempting to transpose Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on America's Vietnam adventure, it's very nearly torpedoed by Brando's performance in the final hour, and it's often marked by an impulse to amp up the drama beyond what its fundamentals can support. Yet for all that it contains unforgettable sequences and, in its totality, becomes unforgettable itself, using Heart of Darkness as its ticket into an even deeper American story, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which is also set on a river (only going in the other direction), also episodic, also with an unsatisfactory ending—and also somehow vastly bigger than the sum of its parts.

And let's not forget it's also the work of a gifted film director, Francis Ford Coppola, at very nearly the top of his form. The sequences it conceives and strings together may be all too easy to take for granted. The mission led by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) to take the point of a river and drop a patrol boat past a point of danger upriver, for example, is a visual feast of filmmaking, with battle scenes on an epic scale existing cheek by jowl with Kilgore's overriding interest in seeking out prime surfing spots in the theater of war—at one point, even with the chaos of battle settling dread over everything, he attempts to impress a draftee who was a famous surfer back in the world by describing himself as a "goofy foot," complimenting the draftee's ability to "ride the nose," and asking for his opinion about heavy surfboards versus lighter.

At the same time the voiceover by Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) wryly puts Kilgore in context, describing him as someone "you just knew" was going to come out of the war without "so much as a scratch." Kilgore lives that out larger than life—striding through scenes densely compacted with action, providing a foreground focus in tracking shots that are impossibly busy in the background, with explosions, amphibious vehicles leaving water for land, a television filming crew, helicopters flying low to the surface and diving into the action, eventually a phalanx of jets napalming a tree line. Kilgore never shows a hint of concern, even as his men all around him are cringing at the smoke and confusion and carnage, and gets off his famously ridiculous remarks: "Charlie don't surf!" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning ... it smells like ... victory."

In those moments, Apocalypse Now is riveting as spectacle. As it continues to move up the river virtually every cliché of the American Vietnam experience is encountered and given practically the best treatment it gets anywhere: the various futilities of using draftees who barely understand how they got there to fight entrenched, committed, desperate guerilla forces, limning the realities of corruption within the military, the lurid vulgarities of American culture, the acid-drenched killing savants fighting to a Hendrix soundtrack, all the paranoia and easy death that existed everywhere in that place, the choppers, the fear, the drugs, the confusion.

Eventually it crosses the physical border of Cambodia and the psychic border of credibility and moves into an even stranger realm, where corpses hang from trees and disembodied heads are impaled on poles, where soldiers have gone native and Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist chews the scenery, where a Green Beret colonel (Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando) is worshiped as a god, though he appears to prefer reading poetry aloud and washing his head, when he is not scurrying in the dark on horrific missions designed to seal his position and reputation.

This all works for me. Apocalypse Now remains one of my favorite movies in spite of its numerous manifest flaws. I even prefer the longer Redux version, which adds nearly an hour to an already long movie, deepening and adding nuance to its various themes. This occurs most notably in the addition of a lengthy scene set on a French plantation, making cogent points about colonialism and its parallels without beating one on the head with them.

On some level I understand the reservations and complaints about Apocalypse Now. I think my willingness to forgive its excesses stems from something like the fact that Vietnam is more or less "my" war, by which I mean it's the war I came of age to and the war that has tended to define all wars for me. In a larger sense, it's a war that traces back more directly to the toxic exercises of World War I than to World War II, the "good war," which conveniently came with a model of undeniable evil (though not without its atrocities on all sides).

Indeed, one element that drew me to Apocalypse Now in the first place continues to draw me back, and redeems it still, and that is the participation of Michael Herr, who gets a writing credit for "narration." Herr is the author of the book Dispatches, a collection of journalism pieces ("new journalism," more like) out of Vietnam in the '60s and early '70s. As far as I can tell, Herr's book almost single-handedly established many of the conventions we still use to understand "the Vietnam experience," all the strange, hallucinatory, and death-fetishizing filters through which many of us still view it, and indeed war, particularly in the movies. Details as simple as the ubiquity and omnipresence of helicopters, or as profound as the alienation of Americans who refuse to give up the pleasures they know such as surfing and acid-rock, even under fire, can be traced to his work.

Herr's sensibility haunts everything most central here: the breakdown of chains of command, order giving way to chaos, a loss en masse of moral compass. "Do you know who the commanding officer is here?"Martin Sheen's Willard demands of soldiers he encounters in a nighttime scene, who are dug in and attempting to return fire on the jungle from a single assailant unknown by anything but his taunting voice. One soldier slowly takes Willard's measure. "Yeah," he finally says, and then deliberately turns to walk away.

There's nothing small about Apocalypse Now. It's done on the grand scale, and remains for me the one great Vietnam picture by which all others are measured.

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