What looms within the human heart,
Unwilling ever to depart,
Is easy to depict in art
For everyone to see:
The darkness and the violent lusts,
Sin that beguiles and disgusts,
That takes our innocence and rusts
To gag morality.
It must be seen, the world insists,
To show the horror that exists.
Its advocates are but realists,
As ugly truth they show.
Perhaps that truth is worth a peek,
If only for what not to seek,
But excess horror lacks critique
And merely lets it grow.
MPA rating: R (strong language and violence, plus nudity in the Redux version)
And here I am finally halfway done with my 2021 Blindspot series… in late October. Okay, so I’m still behind this year, but I’m gaining ground. I had considered Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now for my Blindspot list in past years, but I remembered my mom saying how much she didn’t enjoy it. But it is a classic, right? It’s a monument of modern filmmaking, a testament to the senseless horror of the Vietnam War, a character study of men on the edge of sanity making hard decisions and quoting poetry. Yes, it’s all of these things, and I didn’t much care for it.
Somewhat based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and relocating the novel’s river journey from the African Congo to wartime Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is as much a psychological contemplation as it is a tour of the Vietnam War. Interspersed with nighttime shootouts and upriver ambushes, Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) waxes philosophical over the bleakness of battle and his internal moral debate of what he will do when he encounters Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the effective but crazed colonel his superiors have sent Willard to kill. At times, the film’s tone almost turns into dark comedy, as when Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) insists on surfing in the middle of a beach assault, but it yields to hallucinogenic nihilism by the end, which is more of a whimper than a bang, to borrow from the film’s own T.S. Eliot quote.
I technically watched Apocalypse Now Redux, the 2001 director’s cut that added 49 minutes to the original runtime, including 20 minutes that Coppola later removed again for yet another director’s cut in 2019. When I later read what the additional material was, I wasn’t surprised since they weren’t really needed. The longest added sections, including a stopover with Playboy bunnies and a visit to a plantation of French holdouts, not only slow down the pacing but mainly serve to make the film even more R-rated, adding in two sex scenes absent from the original.
On one hand, I can recognize what captured the regard of so many critics. Coppola’s direction is often top-notch, particularly during a sequence where Willard walks through a chaotic, flare-lit camp under attack, which is like a carnival battlefield from hell. I can’t fault the acting either, from Brando’s climactic soliloquy justifying his actions to Duvall’s mercurial officer who flits from cruel to kind and says “Someday this war’s gonna end” almost with regret. It was nice to see Laurence Fishburne in an early role, as well as minor parts for Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, and Dennis Hopper.
Yet for all its strengths, the film ultimately feels aimless, with its inevitable climax just happening with no subsequent consequences, reactions, or closure for anyone involved. Its status as a critical darling makes me feel like I’m in the minority in disliking it, but it’s a lot like Blade Runner, another technically impressive Blindspot that proved to be style over substance, petering out with no effort to satisfy the audience. I suppose that’s a sign of creative independence and art, but it doesn’t make it a film I care to watch again. I’ve seen people complain that Apocalypse Now was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar in favor of Kramer vs. Kramer, but I’m glad the smaller, more personal film won. On some level, others must have felt the same as I do.
Best line (not going for the obvious “I love the smell of napalm” line): (Willard, quoting Kurtz) “In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action – what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”
Rank: Dishonorable Mention
© 2021 S.G. Liput
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