[This review was originally published at Looking Closer in 2001 on the occasion of this film’s release.]

There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature. – Capt. Lt. Gen. R. Corman (G.D. Spradlin)

The most critically acclaimed movie of the 2001 was made 22 years ago. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) stands on many critics’ lists of all-time favorites, and this new, longer version — Redux — reveals further Coppola’s ambition and brilliance. While the 49 minutes of added footage here say more about ambition than brilliance, they do provide important missing pieces that strengthen the film’s argument against war and, more convincingly, against the American arrogance that led to the cataclysmic fiasco of the Vietnam War.

Martin Sheen stars as Captain Willard, an American soldier sent on a mission up the Nang River through Vietnam into Cambodia to find and assassinate another American, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). In a tense meeting with his superiors, Willard is shown Kurtz’s impressive military history, and he is told the long and sordid tale of Kurtz’s deterioration from an exemplary soldier to a power-mad rebel.  “His methods became…unsound,” mutters the commander, looking halfway to crazy himself.   Kurtz has disappeared into the wilderness to start some kind of cult.

At first, Willard cannot comprehend how this “perfect soldier” could embrace such brutality and the animal laws of the jungle. But the farther he travels into the hellish battlegrounds of the jungle, the more he realizes the madness, audacity, and, yes, “unsound methods” of America’s participation in the struggle. As young and bewildered soldiers die meaningless deaths around him, he feels his own soul, and sanity, suffocating. In the end, Willard has some inkling that he perhaps he is as lost as the man he has been sent to kill.

Basically an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which sets the story in the Congo rather than Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is about Americans lost in a war they do not understand. Conrad’s novel gave Coppola the perfect vehicle for a cinematic odyssey into the heart of the Vietnam conflict.

It is also the perfect device for so many universal stories, mythic and true. The journey is everyman’s road to self-discovery.  Contrary to popular psychology, “self-realization” is a slow road to a realization of one’s own limitations, helplessness, and innate evil. Even King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” found absolute power to be absolutely corrupting.  In Apocalypse Now the men are not God-fearing, so they have nowhere to turn when they hit bottom. Thus the film becomes a parable of the godless reaching the precipice at their wits’ end.

It is also a story of family dynamics.  Willard is a sort of surrogate father to a crew of young and fearful recruits.  As he tries to muster fatherly guidance to a group of young punks, he can’t even bring comfort to himself, and then watches the family crumble under pressure. When his men see that duty has robbed Willard of his own conscience, their last hope for moral guidance and rescue from the inevitable darkness disappears. They too are on the slippery slope to madness.

Perhaps most intentionally, Apocalypse Now is the story of a nation.  One country is trampling another in an arrogant rush to play “hero”.  But as the authorities back home make decisions behind closed doors, the reality of warfare’s damaging effects is visited upon the sons on the front lines.  And, contrary to the press’s reports (in this new version we listen to Kurtz reading polished PR from Time Magazine), things are not improving. Innocents are getting shot for merely looking suspicious, and in this kind of war you look suspicious if you look foreign.  The movie is very hard to watch; the camera doesn’t flinch; we do.  There are children in the trees where those bombs are headed.  And screaming mothers learn very quickly that you cannot carry your frightened children and outrun the blast of a grenade.

This is not just gratuitous gore. This is even nobler than the realism of Saving Private Ryan which tends to shout at us “Look how real it all is! Isn’t it terrible?!”  No, Coppola reaches for something higher, more literary. Everything on one side of a particular frame is juxtaposed with something elsewhere in the same picture.  While medics tend to the dying, other soldiers joke their way into a sort of escapist surreality.  Untimely comedy and the inconvenience of accident make things discomfortingly real. One scene involving the discovery of a puppy alive in the chaos is as heart-rending as the famous moment when a bull is sacrificed during a dark ritual, but both suggest the same thing…the death of the innocent, natural world at the hands of arrogance and confusion.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is almost too good. He captures so much natural beauty that we gasp and gape at the grandeur of sunsets, jungles, a fleet of helicopters like bizarre locusts hovering on the horizon; but we’re not allowed to enjoy it, quickly struck down hard by the undeniable foolishness and madness taking place in the foreground. With unflinching boldness, Storaro shows us elements we are accustomed to seeing in scenes of nobility and patriotism, but instead captures the truth of human ignorance, accident, arrogance, and the way violence begets violence spiraling down into chaos.

The new material isn’t entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive. When the soldiers encounter the Playboy Bunnies that the government has sent to entertain them, the scene is amusing for a moment and then becomes a nauseating display of lust, violence, and chaos. But in the second encounter with the Bunnies, a new scene, we see the men pairing off with the for romantic liaisons, and we quickly have another example of American male arrogance, insensitivity, and possessiveness. It is as troubling and as hard to watch as any scene in the movie. As the men pursue encounters to match their fantasies, it is difficult to ignore the tragic, reprehensible hard-heartedness of the soldiers toward women who are clearly numb with abuse and neglect. Does it add anything to the story? I think the “Bunny scene” deepens the film’s metaphor about specifically American evils. But it does toe the line of excess.

Later, when Willard has dinner with French colonialists in the jungle, their political discussion seems like a subject that the interested the director, but it feels like we’ve switched to the History Channel. And then we switch to the soft porn channel — where Willard has a romantic liaison with a ghostly French widow, and gives us one too many reminders that man is divided between his will to love and his will to destroy.

But Redux‘s virtues far outweigh its flaws. Apocalypse Now in any version remains one of the richest, most extravagant moviegoing experiences of my life. See it on a big screen; to see it on video is to settle for a concert on the radio rather than going to hear a symphony.

While many critics call The Godfather and The Godfather, Part 2 Coppola’s finest films (some, in fact call them the greatest movies ever made), I prefer Apocalypse Now. The Godfather is strong in script, performances, and direction, but Apocalypse goes beyond this into visual poetry, where the story and the world in which it takes place are so forcefully beautiful and terrible that it seems Coppola is just a tour guide — wherever he aims the camera, mystery, nightmare, and revelation are vivid and the screen is hardly big enough to contain them.

You can practically feel the heat from the helicopters, smell the sweat on Captain Willard’s furrowed brow, inhale the cold dank mist down the river. The jungle is soundtrack enough, so he restrains the soundtrack to the most necessary moments. When music does come in, it is attached to character. The Doors’ songs resound in Willard’s head like a musical curse, and “Flight of the Valkyries” is the theme song of choice for a half-mad military leader as he leads the charge on Vietnam from a height where he doesn’t have to see the anguish on the faces of the dying. (You see, a movie about American soldiers in Vietnam doesn’t need a riveting soundtrack; the soldiers are so media-saturated that they prefer to fight with a soundtrack piped right into reality.)

Coppola’s greatness is that he binds all of these searing images and sounds into a meaningful purpose. When humankind decides there is no god beyond itself, it slowly spirals downward into self-destruction — no film portrays this truth better. There are painful moments when these broken men seem ready to cry out for God, but instead they reach for the wrong things. Every man that Willard encounters along his dark path is at another stage of madness born of despair. The film inadvertently echoes Ecclesiastes — human effort is futile without the humbling, guiding influence of God’s grace and love. It is a giant DO NOT ENTER sign posted at the edge of the human heart’s sinful abyss.

I can think of no more fitting portrayal of hell in the history of movies than the moment when Colonel Kurtz comes a culminating moment of self-realization and gasps, “The horror, the horror.”

Just as troubling, though, is the film’s opening line… as we see Willard’s face upside-down in the frame, perhaps at the end of his journey and thinking back, we hear him murmur, “I am still only in Saigon.” The damage is done.  Like the Radiohead songs says, “There are trapdoors that you can’t come back from.”

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