May 24, 2011

#30: Apocalypse Now

"You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist..."

Francis Ford Coppola gave us some of the very best films of the 1970s and was a master of the age of New Hollywood. After the worldwide critical and commercial success of the first two Godfather films, how could a man possibly top that? He certainly tried with Apocalypse Now in 1979, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and re-imagined in the context of the Vietnam War. This is the fourth Vietnam War film on this list (after Platoon, The Deer Hunter and M*A*S*H) so you know that American filmmakers were and are obsessed with this conflict and all its complexities and larger statements about the nature of humanity and war. This film does an excellent job of bringing us deep into the visceral horror of that conflict, but rings hollow for me thematically. I'll try to explain why.

Company: just me this time. Another tough sell.

Cuisine: charbroiled chicken rice from Jasmine Deli (Vietnamese food, delicious and appropriate) and a Diet Coke

"Every minute I stay in this room I get a little weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets a little stronger."

After a spooky and silent prologue, we are introduced to our narrator and (anti-?)hero, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, who looks eerily like his son Charlie here), a special operations veteran who has returned to Saigon after field deployment. Needless to say, he's doing super well adjusting to life off the battlefield, and when he's approached with a mission he's drunk, naked and probably pretty stinky. As my sister Stephanie once said about Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, Willard is "real messed up."

His mission: to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the command and life of Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a formerly respected general who has gone off the deep end himself and amassed a rogue army of dissidents in the jungles of neutral Cambodia. So we're on board with one crazy going to find and kill another even crazier crazy. Ready?

The film then follows Willard and his boat's crew down the fictitious Nung River, and at various times depicts in graphic detail the horrors of Vietnam combat, juxtaposed by lighter moments like the one above, in which Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) introduces the starstruck crew to a famous surfer who's joined the crusade (Sam Bottoms) amidst explosions and genocide.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The attack on the beach is famous for its use of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," and surely influenced the similarly graphic opening of Saving Private Ryan. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote that "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience." While I totally agree, there's a different level of satisfaction to be taken in meaningful analysis of experience than in simply recreating it. The imagery, specifically in this scene, certainly evokes a strong emotional response, but how to turn that response into action and discussion?

The journey down the Nung grows gradually darker as Willard's obsession with learning about Kurtz and his military record grows. At some point the obsession even leans to idolization, and you start to understand the rumor that an American photojournalist is now living under his command and spell. Meanwhile, the men come upon a USO show with Playboy Bunnies that devolves into total sexual rebellion and chaos as the soldiers rush the stage to take advantage of the women. Again, the imagery is so striking (in fact, I think the screen shots from this film are maybe my most consistently beautiful collection of any film on the list so far) but the scene then ends and what has been gained? What knowledge have we taken from it? Maybe it's that I'm far along on this project now and having seen several war films that depict the humane toll of war I'm immune to these messages, but I think it's been more clearly stated in other films.

But here's an interesting reaction: in the scene pictured above, the crew encounters a Vietnamese boat with crops which they deem to be suspicious. After boarding and searching the vessel, a young woman makes a start toward a barrel that she hopes the soldiers won't uncover and in an instant she and the inhabitants of her boat are shot down. It turns out she was hoping to protect her pet puppy. Now anyone who knows me knows that I'm a major sucker for a cute puppy, and though I jumped when the humans on the boat were shot, I flat out convulsed in fear and disgust when the soldiers grabbed the puppy forcefully to bring him onto their own boat. An hour or so of genocide that I've seen and I've barely reacted physically, but making a puppy squeal in fear is over the line? Then I think, "well that puppy is totally innocent!" Guess what, Max? So were ALL THOSE FOLKS ON THE BEACH. Now that's analysis, Coppola. Lesson learned.

Unholy hell.

Willard and his crew, some of whom have been lost along the way, finally reach the camp where Kurtz is presiding over a terrifying army of ghostly-white-body-painted natives. He's greeted by the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper)... and you know when you meet Dennis Hopper in a movie that it's not a good sign. ("Bluuuuuue velveeeeet...") And you know someone worse is in store when Hopper says that Kurtz has "enlarged his mind." Indeed, Willard and his crew are taken hostage and imprisoned, soon to be forced into labor by Kurtz and his jungle cronies.

"Are you an assassin?"
"I'm a soldier."
"You're neither. You're an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill."

Willard's interactions with Kurtz, played with restraint and heft by a restrained and hefty Brando, are chilling, as we thought they might be, but Kurtz's rants lack cohesion for me. They're the babblings of a man driven mad by war and human suffering. Is Coppola telling us that we ought to be Kurtz, that we ought to be enraged by the degradation of human life? Answers are never given, only diatribes with lines like "Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!" It's a war film that deals in poetry, not prose. Is it effective? Yes. Is it haunting? Of course. Does it stick with me? Not as much as I thought it would.

The climactic scene is scored to make everything seem terrifying, epic, and otherworldly -- and it succeeds. But suddenly the story is over and we are left with... what? A great story? Sure. Not a terribly complicated plot, but more a backdrop for musings on the terrible toll that war takes on human life, those living and dead. Perhaps the movie ends abruptly because it ought to. I hadn't thought of that. But man, what a ride.

I think I can be done with war movies for a while. They exhaust me!

Next up: Billy Wilder's 1944 thriller Double Indemnity.

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