Apocalypse Now Jan 4, 2018 15:22:36 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Jan 4, 2018 15:22:36 GMT -5
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Martin Sheen covered in muck in Apocalypse Now.
I've long said that war cinema is our window to the world of combat. By continuing to stand by that statement, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a window I'd not only rather have shut but with drapes thick enough to hide passing shadows of the outdoors. There's a reason I feel many still have yet to see this film in its entirety and length isn't the sole reason.
Coppola's troubled but famous masterwork is one of the best war films ever made, certainly the most impressive to come out of the Vietnam War, and one of the rawest, most visceral achievements for the genre. It's a film that isn't so much interested in characters, although it's careful to emphasize them in moments, nor much interested in the point-A-to-B plot-progression. Such meticulous screenwriting can plague war films and make them overly concerned with process and details of operations. This is a film about the chaos, calamity, and miscommunications that are so ubiquitous in war; it exhausts you by the way it embraces these elements but makes no attempt to hide them under the guise of something neater that would fit into a prettier package.
The film stars Martin Sheen as Benjamin Willard, a U.S. Army captain who has been stationed in Nam for three years. We find him at the beginning of the film "enjoying" a bit of downtime from the war, remaining mostly reclusive in his barracks waiting for his next assignment. It takes about fifteen minutes for Willard to get the assignment that will go on to define him and the film as a whole. Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro do everything they can to take a rather routine moment for another interchangeable soldier and make every minute of his life a twisty, turbulent experience thanks to their eye for intensifying ambiance.
Back to Willard. His assignment is to locate and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Special Forces veteran whose mental state has deteriorated enough to put together his own branch of Montagnard troops in Cambodia and operate as a dictator. He has committed acts of murder and torture on his own men as well as unconscionable acts of war, operating as a rogue force under the nose of the CIA despite his vicious actions. Willard reluctantly takes the job and boards a Navy boat occupied with several other men known only through cheap nicknames: "Chef, "Chief," and "Clean." The only one with whom he forms any kind of relationship is Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who tries to let his love for surfing rub off on Willard as the two embark deep into the Viet Cong via the Nùng river. Their first move to initiate combat is a bloody raid on a Viet Cong-occupied coast, which results in napalm explosions and immense devastation while giving the boys a nice visual welcome wagon to the depths of hell.
Apocalypse Now famously went through hell to get made, with a disastrous production burdened by powerful storms on-location in Vietnam that destroyed expensive sets. Coppola also locked horns with an unprepared Marlon Brando, a paranoid and at one-point heart-attack-stricken Martin Sheen, and a laborious editing process that had him editing several hours of footage. The miserable experience is unfortunately synonymous with the kind of hopelessness it so powerfully examines. Make no mistake; Coppola didn't suffer through adverse conditions for the sake of a subpar film. At the very least, he knew what kind of film he had on his hands. He knew that it would have the ability to shock even the cynical and jaded, and would be exactly the kind of shot-to-the-arm filmmaking to invigorate New Hollywood in a boldly unglamorous way. The awful conditions were temporary. The impact that came as a result was legendary.
One of the most entrancing details in Apocalypse Now is how it plunges you right into the miserable, forcing you to look when you've spent your entire life looking away. There's a moment when a little girl runs out in the open of gunfire, splitting from her family in an instance, causing a machine-gunner (Laurence Fishburne) to "spray and pray," so to speak, the youth and her family. The girl was running after her dog, who broke free. The mother is the only one of the group that is still alive, breathing despite blood covering her, some probably not even her own. Willard makes the decision to kill her; saving a casualty is not part of his mission. Then there's notions of American exceptionalism and the country's iron grip on the world that Coppola shows in an allegorical scene revolving around soldiers overseeing the destruction of a village so they can surf and take advantage of Nam's coast. Moments like this don't fit too nicely on nightly news, nor are they the images you want to see. War is so abstract in the eyes of Americans, which is why we look towards films as a window. As stated, Coppola makes Apocalypse Now a window with no blinds and one you cannot close; you have to take in the horrors and practically smell the napalm and rancid decomposition of bodies.
Glory be to Coppola and Storaro for engineering a nightmarish and hallucinogenic descent into this location. Through artful wide-angle shots, a mossy green color-palette, and a large landscape on which to stage immense devastation, Coppola and Storaro use these elements to illustrate lengthy scenes of combat and warfare. In lesser hands, these sequences could've been overlong substitutes that felt like cheap distractions from the lack of writing. Not here. These scenes are actually better than ones where dialog and conversation are the main focal point. It's a daring move to shift a war film away from the effects it has on the main characters for a significant amount of time in order to show the real ugliness of it, but Coppola's move pays off with extraordinary scenes, many of which I don't care to witness again.
Much is always made about Marlon Brando's role as Colonel Kurtz. Some say it doesn't live up to all the time we have to wait to see it. Others say it's another one of the method actor's finest. I think it's the idea of Kurtz as a character that is the most significant of all. He exists as a character even when he doesn't, and like our protagonist, his presence is felt and he's always lurking in our mind. His elusiveness has a dimension that makes us weary when we finally see him because it's as if our own mission has been completed as well. Don't be surprised if you're overcome with exhaustion when the conclusion finally arrives, or Brando's makes his anticipated appearance. Coppola makes us as tired and as emotionally vulnerable as Willard by that point and then makes an attempt to deplete the remainder of our energy.
It's difficult to talk about Apocalypse Now, its quality, and the emotions it brings without sounding hyperbolic, yet words seem ineffective when compared to the emotions and reactions it is capable of inspiring. In fighting with a disastrous production one wouldn't wish on the worst director they could name, Coppola created a film that showed how the fight of culture clash and a military industry may never be over. He nihilistically suggests that people will keep fighting and dying in the process, and the sad part is that he is not wrong after all is said and shown.
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and Laurence Fishburne. Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola.