From its explosive overture to its brutal ending,
“Apocalypse Now” immerses its audience into dreamlike madness.
Francis Ford Coppola depicts war as normalized insanity, a place where surfing
occurs alongside horrific bombings, TV crews film full-scale invasions, and
Playboy bunnies are choppered out of USO shows like they’re soldiers. His
Vietnam looks both beautiful and nightmarish, an awe-inspiring vision of Hell,
and it ensconces viewers into a psychologically fractured state. In fact, the
entire film operates on a borderline oneiric logic, foregrounding the
psychological realism of life during war over the on-the-ground realism of war
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned to travel up the Nung River to
terminate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) “with extreme prejudice”
because he’s lost his mind in the jungle. Willard is joined by a colorful band
of characters: Chief (Albert Hall), the hostile patrol boat commander; Lance
(Sam Bottoms), a cool surfer with a penchant for acid; Chef (Frederic Forrest),
a wiry, paranoid cook who learns an important lesson about not getting off the
boat; and Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne), a young Bronx native desperate
for adventure. Along their episodic journey, they meet other fixtures like
Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a surfing-obsessed psychotic who relishes his
time at war, and a crazed photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who has fallen under
Kurtz’s spell at his outpost.
In “Apocalypse Now,” these sequences are stitched together by
Willard’s mission, but also by the madness. We’re introduced to Willard as he’s
losing his mind in his hotel room, and then we adopt his perspective as he
watches the insanity around him through cold, disaffected eyes. Sheen is
masterful in the film precisely because
he’s passive; he’s a beaten down survivor of a terrifying war that everyone
else accepts as normal. Watch Sheen as he watches the USO show or Kilgore playing “Ride of the Valkyries” and you seen horror filtered through trauma without a
The film also gets plenty of mileage on the absurdity of
the whole Vietnam enterprise. Putting aside the numerous ironic moments and
scenes of Americans attempting to turn Vietnam into their own personal
playground, much of the film is outright comedic. Duvall’s entire appearance as
Kilgore functions as a horrifying comic set piece as his casual sadism becomes
laughable compared to the destruction he causes. The scenes on the patrol boat
of the crew dicking around, such as Lance water-skiing or Mr. Clean getting
down to the Rolling Stones, while violence lingers all around them are funny
little respites from the grimness. Finally, the scene with Willard, Chef, and
the tiger in the jungle, which begins as horror, transitions to comedy, and
then reverts back to horror as the metaphor of an unknown specter living in the
jungle finally takes hold.
“Apocalypse Now” is one of the best war movies of all time
because it succeeds in placing the audience in a druggy trance, which Coppola
implicitly argues is the mental state of Vietnam. Coppola’s war becomes larger
than life through Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, but it’s also an intimate,
torturous abyss evidenced by Willard’s eerie, direct address voice over that
feels like someone’s talking you through the madness. But Coppola’s goal isn’t
to justify the madness of war, nor make it palatable, but to trap the audience
in it, so they can understand the full effect of life in a bloody jungle of our own creation.
More thoughts from the web:
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
What’s great in the film, and what will make it live for many years and speak to many audiences, is what Coppola achieves on the levels Truffaut was discussing: the moments of agony and joy in making cinema. Some of those moments come at the same time; remember again the helicopter assault and its unsettling juxtaposition of horror and exhilaration. Remember the weird beauty of the massed helicopters lifting over the trees in the long shot, and the insane power of Wagner’s music, played loudly during the attack, and you feel what Coppola was getting at: Those moments as common in life as art, when the whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance. Read more.
Andrew Johnson, Movie Mezzanine
The cynicism of “Apocalypse Now” is summed up by the message that he finds scrawled in Kurtz’s notebooks: DROP THE BOMB. EXTERMINATE THEM ALL! Is he referring to the Viet Cong, the U.S. military, or the entire human race? Nobody is immune from the degradation. Playboy Playmates are pawed at, civilians are gunned down, one outpost has no commanding officer, Americans prey on other Americans, and Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist is a mutt who really doesn’t like fractions, man. Willard at one point notes that even Kurtz himself wants to die. There’s no such thing as heroism in “Apocalypse Now,” no appeals to touted ideals of noble sacrifice in the name of defeating evil. The “horror” war has revealed to Kurtz is that we’re all equally broken; it’s only a matter of recognition. Just as Michael Corleone deluded himself into thinking he could take over the family business without losing his soul, so the U.S. military thought it could enter Vietnam and not emerge fundamentally changed. Read more.
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
The moment when Jim Morrison intones “This is the end” and the tree line explodes remains one of the greatest sync events in movies. (I’ll never forget the impact it had on me as a neophyte film critic sitting in the third row at the Ziegfeld all-media in August 1979.) There’s never been anything to top the fascist excitement of the “Ride of the Valkyries” air cavalry attack—or the historical resonance that Coppola packs it with. At the same time, Coppola was one of the first American directors to evoke war as pure terror: The grunt who can’t leave the chopper (“I’m not going, I’m not going”), the wounded guys screaming for Mama, and later, the surfer who stumbles through the movie’s equivalent of the Khe Sanh siege on acid. Read more.
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
Some moments in “Apocalypse Now” succeed thrillingly at marrying abstraction and money, like the mesmerizing, unblinking opening shot of a jungle going up in flames. But Coppola ultimately bows to the rigid demands of the narrative, which has Special Forces agent Martin Sheen heading upriver to confront unhinged colonel Marlon Brando. The movie is partly about how the U.S. war machine comes equipped with American excess, and as Coppola famously pointed out in his 1979 Cannes press conference, “Apocalypse Now’s” production mirrored its theme. Too many disposable resources and too much fear of failure corrupted a simple idea, making it simultaneously pretentious and plain. Only occasionally did Coppola let the story’s episodic structure and the crutch of Sheen’s narration (written by war correspondent Michael Herr) give himself license to explore pure cinematic texture, in sequences where the action curdles into absurdity. Read more.