What more can be said that hasn’t been said about this film?

Apocalypse Now is not a film that we can synopsize, paraphrase, or sum up with a lesson. We can’t do that with any great work of art. But this is a case of a film the existence of which is hard to comprehend. How was it accomplished? How did so much that was captured in contexts roiling with uncontrollable elements come together into something that coheres so powerfully, so completely? And how is it that it now exists in three different versions — the original theatrical release (2 hours and 27 minutes), the 2001 expansion (3 hours and 23 minutes) called Apocalypse Now Redux, and the Final Cut version (3 hours and 3 minutes) — all of which have such remarkable strengths?

Let’s put aside the question of the film’s greatness: That it has been, and still is, so frequently referenced in film criticism — reviews of movies about war, movies about American history, movies about America’s contradictions, movies about monsters, movies about how we deal with monsters, movies about assassins, movies with jungles, etc. — and usually as a standard by which some other film falls short… well, that pretty much settles it.

A hero will rise reborn… as a monster. (Credit: Lionsgate)

Captain Willard’s journey upriver to find and “terminate the command” of an American war hero is, in the opinion of this lover of literature and film, more important to the history of cinema than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the source, is to the history of literature. The narrative, grounded in a specific time, a specific place, and a specific American error — it merges with any branch of human history you place alongside it. Its observations about ambition and arrogance speak meaningfully of what is happening in the world in any particular age — and, I’m tempted to say, this one more than most. Power makes the powerful mad and makes monsters of them. And those who have the wisdom to see the folly in those evils are tempted to make monsters of themselves in their drive to drag down such devils.

Yes, Frances Ford Coppola had to be half out of his mind with ambition and ego to make this movie. And he brought Martin Sheen along with him to a point of such brokenness and despair that only the grace of God, according to Sheen’s own testimony, saved him. (Thank God for the kindness of filmmaker Terrence Malick, who stepped in and provided guidance. Sheen has told this story in an interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being.) That’s nothing new: Revisit the documentary Hearts of Darkness if you want to see things get out of hand and then get completely out of control. (Lost in La Mancha looks shrug-worthy by comparison.)

Chasing the whims of madmen — Kilgore’s air command rides the waves. (Credit: Lionsgate)

Yes, it raises all kinds of ethical questions about how and why to make a war movie. Does this film glorify warmaking? In some ways, yes — those helicopter assaults on the coastline are thrilling even as they are horrifying and ridiculous. Yes, there is something iconic and superhuman in the image of Willard rising from the muck, baptized, armed to bring down the axe on the living sacrifice. Viewers vulnerable to the glamour of power, even power gone mad, can easily take pleasure in such imagery.

Yes, the movie is deeply rooted in Conrad’s classic river quest, even as it responds to its recontextualization to extraordinary effect. It must have played as unbearably burdensome horror for those with enough conscience and wisdom in 1979 to have conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War. It’s exhausting, fascinating, maddening: the sheer absurdity of America’s involvement in that conflict, the incalculable waste of soldiers’ lives; the reliance of soldiers on various and extreme forms of fantasy and escape in order to survive each grueling day; the ways in which stress can break down resistance to fear, break down restraint from violence; the hero’s harrowing failure (or, the Grownups’ Version of the Luke Skywalker Test, in which Skywalker, seeing what war-making can do to a man, chooses not to throw down his sword, but to raise it, at the potential cost of his soul).

Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist seems a lot like a Speaker of the House for Kurtz’s mad tyrant. (Credit: Lionsgate)

But here it is again, made new, with substantial excisions from the expansive Redux version (which I love for its epic meanderings), and yet substantially deeper dives than the original.

This 183-minute cut preserves the hilarity of Captain Willard’s theft of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s prize surfboard; keeps the solemn ceremonies acknowledging deaths among Willard’s crew; and refuses to give up the bizarre French Plantation chapter and its not-quite-a-love-story tangent (complete with cheesy synths and gratuitous nudity, assuming that we will see a difference between this carnal indulgence for the sake of escape and the lust-gone-wild of the Playboy Bunny USO scene).

It also improves upon the already awe-inspiring and immersive soundscapes, making me even more convinced that what I hear in this film has just as much influence on my experience as what I see, if not more. (My double-LP soundtrack, which includes music, narration, sound effects, and more, is a nightmare that I revisit only occasionally, like a prayer of lament.)

“Someday this war’s gonna end.” — Wishful thinking from Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). (Credit: Lionsgate)

What was substantially different about this journey upriver with Willard and company? This time, Apocalypse Now surprised me, as if a sort of graphic equalizer for genre-classification had been adjusted, amplifying the comic elements so that it seemed as much an Absurdist Comedy as a Horror Movie. And I’m trying to figure out why it seemed that way.

Perhaps it’s just the times in which I’m seeing the film. Our context influences our experience of art.

The first time I saw Apocalypse Now, I saw it on a TV screen with a VHS tape when I was a senior in high school, and I found it hypnotic, harrowing, and also very exciting. It made me feel like a grown man, watching that film. This was a movie of complex questions, one that refused to indulge my patriotic sensibilities or my desire to see soldiers as heroes.

More than a decade later, watching Redux, the film was a revelation of literary significance, aesthetic achievement, and moral substance.

Here and now in 2019? Here in the midst of what may be an horrific end to American Democracy, as we are led by compulsive liars and traitors who look likely to plunge us into more unnecessary wars for their own financial gain, my bullshit detector is turned up to ’11.’ I am utterly cynical now when I hear patriotic Americans throw around terms like “liberty” and “justice” and “the American dream,” while a sort of cult rallies around a man who this very week praised a man for calling him “the second coming of God.” Exhausted by the prevalent absurdities, I find that this movie — precisely because it plays as an absurdist comedy — feels like The News. It feels like we’re watching one of the first major strokes that struck the American mind, one of the nation’s first major heart attacks. And now we know that they would be ongoing, and that we will probably never recover.

Thrilling? Harrowing? Heartbreaking? Yes. (Credit: Lionsgate)

In response to this week’s live footage of the President of the United States declaring, on camera, that he is “The Chosen One,” friends reminded us of what the Scriptures say about such a man.

Specifically, Daniel 11: 36:

“The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods.”

And then, Acts 12:20-23:

“Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and they came to him in a body, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and made an oration to them. And the people shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and died.”

Apocalypse Now is a story of a man who, overcome by the violence he had witnessed and the violence he had committed, could not bear the grief of it, and declared himself God in order to cope with it. That did not go well, and soon he began fantasizing about his own assassination. And another man, himself crumbling under the burden of humankind’s wrongdoing, took a step too far himself.

Thus, this movie increases my conviction that I must ground my identity in a different kingdom. I must find my identity among a different people. I must take the path of suffering saints who see this world, America and every other failing culture poisoned by its toxins — as a strange land in which we serve as embedded agents of love. As Tolkien asserted, human history is a story of decline due to human weakness. On our own, we cannot save the world — and if we try to do so by seizing power, we will awaken within ourselves the very monsters we seek to destroy. But the horrors of evil are horrifying only because we have been blessed, by something or someone, with a capacity for self-knowledge and a potential for understanding grace. We know that we are meant for something more than this. And if that’s true, then the hells we make in this world, like the one this movie depicts so vividly, are not all there is, and we, the authors of these horrors, do not get the last word.

That Coppola, in a madness of his own, could give craft such an eloquent lament in the midst of such chaos should give us hope. Even a man caught up in a current of madness can become a conduit for truth, capturing “the horror” in a vision of terrible beauty that might provide a cautionary nightmare. It might remind us, even in revealing the cancer of sin, that this is all part of a song — one full of evils and folly and loss —  and yet, that song is meaningful, meant to turn our hearts away from folly… and toward… what, exactly? That is the question.