Film & TV

Apocalypse Now Is More Gripping Than Marvel Universe Escapism

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (United Artists)
Coppola’s final cut of his Vietnam War epic reminds adults of what real drama looks like.

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, Francis Ford Coppola’s latest rendition of his 1979 Vietnam War epic, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival right on time to correct the media hysteria surrounding Avengers: Endgame.

Although Apocalypse Now is not a great movie, it shows a still-impressive, politically inspired ambition — a reminder of why film culture matters. Just as Coppola’s Godfather trilogy steadily deepened the gangster-movie genre, Apocalypse Now attempts a serious, culture-altering experience: The eyes-widening secret CIA mission of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) to travel up-river through Vietnam to a remote Cambodian compound established by the rogue colonel, Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

Released toward the end of a vital period in American filmmaking, Apocalypse Now was intended as a grand summation of all that had plagued the United States since the Vietnam War began: imperialist shame, global and domestic racism, youth revolt, and loss of religious belief replaced by spiritual mystification.

Willard’s assignment to kill Kurtz (“Terminate with extreme prejudice” says the one Asian-American character with a speaking role) would be a political exorcism — and Willard’s distasteful duty and Kurtz’s sacrifice served as a necessary cultural ritual.

The big-screen experience of Apocalypse Now is intellectually and aesthetically incomparable to what today’s streaming technology and television considers “content.” It’s more substantial than the Marvel Comics Universe, which avoids the serious issues that occupy moviegoer consciousness.

MCU placates contemporary political sensibilities. Every characterization panders to political cant about equality and diversity while the overall narrative actually simplifies ideological and philosophical differences, hastening conflict, division, and self-righteousness in the guise of comic-book struggle.

But Coppola worked on terms that respected the intellectual and aesthetic needs of the mass audience. His noble failure stems from unavoidable sensitivity to his times: The Willard–Kurtz antagonism dramatizes the troubled self-regard of 1970s America. Following General Corman’s description of “conflict in the human heart between the rational and the irrational, good and evil,” Willard’s trek condenses the era’s insecurity.

The film’s literary source, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (in Copppola’s generation, it was a standard in literature and Western-history curricula) becomes a modern widescreen, Technicolor film noir adventure.

Apocalypse Now plays as an LSD vision of war made by a civilian without military or combat experience (to which Coppola would pay moving tribute in 1986’s Gardens of Stone). The conceit of Coppola and his co-screenwriter John Milius, combined with war correspondent Michael Herr’s voice-over narration, reflected the influence of counterculture and rock-music disenchantment. (The Doors’ “The End” and The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” provide fatalistic theme songs.) Willard worries like the classic disillusioned protagonist of Detour: “I killed six men that I know about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this was an American . . . ” He abhors the idea of killing Kurtz, formerly an exemplar of American exceptionalism.

As a war film with the hip-cynical soul of hard-boiled detective fiction, Apocalypse Now isn’t merely ironic, it’s aberrant. Why? Film history tells us this was an inevitable expression of Baby Boomers’ ingenuousness. The movie brats who had distinguished American films throughout the Seventies were mostly college-educated draft dodgers, and their output (Hi, Mom!, The Landlord, American Graffiti, Taxi Driver, The Sugarland Express, Stay Hungry, The Driver) fully conveyed that pacifist pessimism. Even George Lucas reinterpreted The Searchers, John Ford’s confrontation with historic American racism, into Star Wars, setting in motion Hollywood’s juvenile destiny.

The style-less Star Wars launched American cinema into infantilism. It instilled a taste for childish, mundane, B-movie fantasy absent visual creativity — a new low — whereas the sensibility in Apocalypse Now was ambivalent. Mixing pessimism with astonishment, it expanded cultural unease on a grand 70mm scale (richly photographed by Vittorio Storaro).

The opening scene is extraordinary film-student art. Coppola mounts an unforgettable visual montage of Willard’s Saigon-hotel nervous breakdown: his panicked upside-down eyes, enflamed images of destroyed forestry, and an annoying, time-ticking ceiling fan are intercut with traumatic, roaring helicopter blades. The film works best employing such collages. Overlapping close-ups (Willard’s face, Kurtz’s face, and Asian statuary) are especially cinematic — unrushed imagery that inspires thought and feeling.

Apocalypse Now’s mixed messages go from a Pentagon Papers analysis (Willard yields to Kurtz’s assessment that “the war can be won with a quarter of our force,” and we get discussions on the hypocrisy of “assassins accusing assassins”) to awesome military-industrial-complex showpieces.

Coppola’s coup de grâce displays both American military might and sybaritic indifference, featuring Robert Duvall’s bantam turn as Kilgore (a Kurt Vonnegut reference?), who likes to mix surfing with a strafing ground war. The sheer genius of photographing needle-nosed American jet fighters charging through the air as they descend on a quiet Vietnamese school (a front for Vietcong saboteurs) works on a primitive emotional level while exulting in an advanced society’s technological power. The entire sequence is scored to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie — first heard as a recording and then as an anti-war alarm that’s part of the movie’s score. After this immensely disturbing analog to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, American film culture could never be the same.

In sequences such as this (and the Playboy-bunny sex concert that contradicts the history of Bob Hope’s patriotic U.S.O. shows), Apocalypse Now displays singular audacity. Coppola’s decision to employ visual excess as a means of conveying the phantasmagoria of war can’t sustain narrative momentum. A later excursion into a French Colonial plantation is a half-cooked idea to over-explain Western colonialism — although the image of a tattered American flag used by one failed empire to bury a G.I. from another (teenage, acne-scarred Larry Fishburne) is undeniably moving.

Compare how obvious social-justice platitudes pad out the banal Avengers: Endgame. Self-satisfied Marvel fans are deprived of the sociological dread that informs Coppola’s disaffection. It is voiced in Brando/Kurtz’s improvised soliloquy “The horror, the moral terror . . . dilettante in war and tourist in Vietnam.” But this American eulogy is conveyed most mysteriously and effectively whenWillard discovers a black platoon of stoned brothers hidden in their own lost outpost. He asks, “Who’s in charge here?” The two responses summarize the racial horror and terror that are bedrock in American history (although neither Hollywood nor Oliver Stone’s later-coming Platoon deal with it adequately). That is the film’s true heart of darkness.

***

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut opposes today’s hegemonic assumption that post-Vietnam (and post-9/11) escapism is justifiable. Hollywood’s infantilization is tied to Millennials’ unquestioned belief in market manipulation over patriotism — their naïve faith that commercialism is its own reward.

Since there’s not a single memorable image in all of Avengers: Endgame, Coppola can be forgiven for having another go at Apocalypse Now. He believes in D. W. Griffith’s great conviction: “My aim, above all, is to make you see.” When the Tribeca Film Festival screening ended, a young female usher with a sweet smile asked me, “Did you just see that Apocalypse movie? Do you know when it’s going to open? Because I like zombie films!” She had been misinformed, like most Millennials, but that’s not Coppola’s fault — it’s ours.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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