Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Rarely have I been left so utterly speechless at the end of a film than after I finished watching Apocalypse Now Redux. After sitting through Francis Ford Coppola's 3 1/2 hour recut of his 1979 Vietnam epic, I was shocked, terrified, moved, entertained, intellectually stimulated, and speechless. I knew that I had witnessed something extraordinary, but I did not quite know what to make of it. Of course, it is easy to appreciate the technical mastery of the early scenes, with their splendidly choreographed helicopter fights, luscious cinematography, and startling use of sound; the sheer size of the production is incredible. But what to make of the final scenes, in which the protagonist Capt. Willard finally comes face-to-face with the apparently insane Col. Kurtz, who is worshipped like a god in the middle of the Cambodian jungle? This portion of the film is heady and strange, yet there was something undeniably fascinating about it. At the film's end, though not fully understanding the ending, I nonetheless remained convinced that Apocalypse Now was a staggering work of art by one of America's greatest directors.

Apocalypse Now Redux opens with a powerful montage in which Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) lies in a drunken stupor in his Saigon hotel room, waiting for a new mission. Soon enough, Willard is ordered to sail up the Nung River to Cambodia to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-promising soldier who has allegedly gone insane and betrayed the army. Willard's task is to terminate the Colonel's command - "with extreme prejudice." Willard is joined by four other men, and the film tracks their journey upriver to find Kurtz's compound.

Ambitious does not begin to describe Apocalypse Now. The production woes of the film are legendary - Sheen had a heart attack, Brando showed up unprepared and overweight, extreme weather destroyed sets, and principal production ended up taking 238 days to complete. To watch the film is to marvel that Coppola managed to pull it off. The air strike sequence, in which the maniacal Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) attacks a Vietnamese village to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries,” is simply extraordinary. We see the point of view of the helicopters, as they swoop through schoolyards and blow up buildings with missiles, while the villagers scatter. The sheer logistics of directing such a scene, especially in the pre-digital age, are mind-boggling. It is simultaneously one of the most thrilling and disturbing battle sequences I have ever seen.

But the long river journey is the heart and center of Apocalypse Now. Willard’s team is filled with young and innocent soldiers, as Willard’s cynical narration tells us – “rock ‘n’ rollers with one foot in their graves.” There is the seventeen year old Clean (a young Lawrence Fishburne) from “some South Bronx shithole,” a Californian surfer named Lance (Sam Bottoms), the tightly wound “Chef” (Frederic Forrest), and the domineering Chief Phillips (Albert Hall). At first the journey seems almost pleasant – the men water ski, chat amicably, drink booze, and surf. But this feeling soon wears off as the journey continues. They are exposed to war atrocities, are attacked by a tiger, and in one tragic scene, accidentally kill a boatload of civilians. Several die along the way. The rest lose whatever faith in civilization they had.

When the survivors finally pull into Kurtz’s compound, they are greeted by a legion of native soldiers and a stoned American reporter (Dennis Hopper) who babbles on about how Kurtz is a “great man.” The camera passes over details like bloody staircases and decapitated heads without providing any explanation, thus leaving us to question who exactly this Kurtz is. The build-up here is effective, and it works on a parallel level, because of Brando’s reputation as a brilliant but difficult actor. When Kurtz finally appears, he is mired in shadow, a bald, cryptic old sage who cynically calls Willard “an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect the bill.” Brando is a frightening, mysterious, and powerful presence in his few scenes, and it is difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part so successfully.

It is in these final scenes that Apocalypse Now reveals its true ambitions. For all the impressive spectacle of its early scenes, Apocalypse Now remained a somewhat conventional war film. But in this final segment, Coppola dares to show us the darker side of human nature, and to reveal moral complexities. We begin to see Kurtz not as just a raving lunatic but as an ordinary man driven mad by the horrors of war. Yet Coppola offers no easy answers, particularly with an ambiguous ending that plays out like some ancient tribal ritual. This is a film that is meant to challenge, and so Coppola does, with the masterful spell that is Apocalypse Now.

Verdict: A+

Note: I have only seen the 2001 “Redux” version of Apocalypse Now, so all my views here are based on that version.