Apocalypse Now Review

(3.5 STARS)

Apocalypse Now’s back story has been exhaustively covered, but for good reason. The film forever altered the trajectory of Francis Ford Coppola’s career (and nearly destroyed his sanity). It almost killed Martin Sheen. It was disrupted by indecision, narcissism, and acts of Mother Nature. It was delayed for a long time and way over budget. Yet, it’s still a masterful piece of filmmaking. It’s nearly undone by the muddled, meandering conclusion. But for more than two hours, it’s an incredibly compelling work of art.

Captain Benjamin Willard (Sheen) was born for war. He’s not at home unless he’s in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting for his country, and this is the longest he’s gone without seeing some real action. He’s growing restless, but thankfully, his superiors rescue him from his boredom with a killer of a mission: Go deep into enemy territory, alone, and take out a rogue U.S. Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has, according to Willard’s superiors, lost his mind and has set himself up as some kind of God in the jungle. Kurtz enlists the help of an off-the-reservation Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and a few infantry men—Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Clean (Laurence Fishburne), and Lance (Sam Bottoms)—to essentially chauffer him blindly up the Nung River and into Cambodia. The journey is arduous, and along the way, Willard begins to question his orders—and Kurtz’s supposed insanity.

The best parts of Apocalypse Now, by far, involve the journey on boat up the river. It plays out like your average road trip movie, but the stakes are obviously much greater. Each little vignette is memorable for one reason or another (the best being the famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” sequence with Kilgore), and they all represent something different. The tiger scene reminds us that soldiers must always be on their toes, that the littlest thing (in this case, looking for mangoes) can end up being the most dangerous. The playmates scene reminds us how strongly soldiers cling to that which reminds them of home. The sampan massacre reminds us how brutal even the best men can be when they are scared or have their backs against the wall. And the Do Lung sequence reminds us of the chaos and unpredictability of war. There are certainly a few scenes that don’t work as well (the French plantation stuff comes to mind), but on the whole, Coppola succeeds far more than he fails.

When he gets to the conclusion, however, things get seriously problematic. As good an actor as Brando is, he can’t salvage a screenplay this messy. Kurtz is built up, built up, built up over the course of two hours, and when we meet him, he’s certainly scary and imposing. But the poetry stuff goes a little too far, and the Dennis Hopper character is out of place. I was dying for this film to just call it quits because I didn’t want my love of the good stuff to be hampered too much. It definitely goes on for too long, but as flawed as it is, it just can’t take away from what Coppola accomplishes over the bulk of the film. I only wish he had a clearer idea of how this story ended.

Martin Sheen is a good choice to play Willard. He’s more intense here than I’ve ever seen him (maybe he tried to cut back on the intensity after the heart attack he suffered in the Philippine jungle filming this), and he sells Willard’s surprising fragility well. Brando makes Kurtz very memorable, though maybe not for all the right reasons. The character is just really campy, and the great actor eats it up. But I prefer my Brando a little more restrained a la Terry Malloy or even Don Corleone. Probably the best performance in the film comes from Robert Duvall. His character, too, is very over-the-top, but he’s only around for a short while and his scenes are incredibly well-done.

Apocalypse Now received some amazing acclaim when it was released in 1979, but only a year after The Deer Hunter took home Best Picture, I guess Apocalypse Now had little chance of doing the same. Kramer vs. Kramer was awarded the Oscar instead (and is one of the five worst Best Picture winners that I’ve seen), but history has been much kinder to Coppola’s film. It has a few problems with its conclusion, but it certainly is one of the most ambitious and accomplished Vietnam pictures in history.

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