Apocalypse Now Review

Apocalypse Now is a 1979 war drama written/directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by John Milius/Michael Herr. The movie was based on the short story Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which also inspired the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The film has become one of the seminal Vietnam War films and is considered one of the best movies of all time.

In the middle of the Vietnam War Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with hunting down and killing a rogue Colonel (Marlon Brando) who has been launching vigilante strikes against the Vietcong with his army of savage natives. He makes his way down river to where the Colonel is hiding, accompanied by the crew, and is forced to face the horrors of war and the darkest corners of Man's heart.

The themes of this film are just like every other Vietnam War movie and are pretty much explored in the same way: young, innocent soldiers having their lives stripped away by a war they wanted no part of, Americans destroying villages and killing civilians for no reason and a main character who had no idea what he was in for exposed to the horrors of war. While all of this is done well, probably better than most other Vietnam movies, I find myself disappointed that films about this time period continue to beat this particular dead horse. Movies like to think that this time period is a perfect example of America's cruelty, because that's what they showed on the news to get views, but the war was a lot less simple than that; the Vietcong were just as cruel, if not more so, to the Americans as we were to them. Why can't we get a movie showing that side of the war? Then we could get a complete perspective on Vietnam which would basically boil down to, "Everybody was a bastard. Nobody was the victim. Let's not start a war like this ever again." However, I give this film credit because the wounds were still healing from that particular conflict and the media was still broadcasting the "America Sucks" message.

The funny thing about the film's main character is that it tries to eat the cake and have it; in Vietnam War films the lead is normally a plucky, naive soldier who is warped and scarred by the horrors of war. However, Captain Willard is already broken and bitter by his military service and now plunges into another layer of human evil that he never knew existed. This helps the movie stand out from the crowd and helps us to already feel apprehensive of the coming events; it sets us up to think, "What could possibly shake and disturb a man who's already at the point where he's numb to the violence of warfare?" Then, the movie answers it for us as it goes darker and more bizarre than any film set in this time period before or after it came along.

SPOILERS: There's one part of the film I don't understand, though: the ending. When Willard finally locates Colonel Kurtz the idea is that he's slowly turning into Kurtz. I just don't understand how that would happen. After seeing Kurtz's fortress of decapitate heads, dangling dead bodies and after Kurtz killed his friend, why would Willard be sympathetic to Kurtz's insane philosophies? I think I would hate the man who did all this rather than admire him. Maybe that's the idea: through his consuming hatred he's turning into Kurtz anyway and finally commits an act of horror.

I suppose that's really what sets this apart from just being another Vietnam war flick: the tone. Unfortunately, most of that is due to technicalities, so I'll discuss that later.

The screenplay is legitimately haunting, especially Willard's inner monologue. It's basically a lot of "war is hell" and a bunch of other stuff that's been parodied to death, but it still works really well. It's legitimately depressing somber, helping set the heavy, oppressive tone perfectly.

It's almost like every part of the technical process was designed to create the most eerie environment possible.

The lighting is always harsh, no matter what color it is. When it's yellow, it's a sickly yellow, like something's dying. If it's orange, it's the hottest, muggiest orange you've ever seen. When it's green, it looks like poisonous fumes. If it's just white light, it pierces through the darkness and almost seems to slap the actors in the face. They even find a way to make the blue of evening seem uncomfortable. It's also interesting how it helps tell the story at the beginning and the end of the film. (Minor spoilers) In the beginning, Willard is in his hotel room, lamenting about his time in 'Nam and how he longs for another assignment. His room is almost completely dark, like he's marinating in his disturbed mind. Near the end, when he finally finds Kurtz, it's almost the same thing, having Kurtz completely in the shadows. I know this was mostly done to hide the fact that Marlon Brando was monstrously fat at the time, but I still think it's a good bit of visual storytelling.

The music helps this film set the tone a lot because it's not typical of a war drama. Rather than having sweeping orchestral cues there's a lot of creepy synth. It honestly sounds like it would've been made for a Blade Runner-esq science fiction film.

The sound design/editing also help set the tone. The very first shot of the film is the warped sound of helicopter blades and they echo throughout the opening. It sounds extremely ominous and foreboding, like something otherworldly and dangerous. The sounds of helicopters are constantly used throughout the rest of the film as the sounds of suffering and animosity. The sounds of chattering animals and buzzing insects of the jungle are constantly in your ears, often with no music, which works really well to build up tension and anticipation.

The editing is good for the most part. It's a lot of slow fading from one shot to the other, helping the strange, otherworldly feeling of the film. However, sometimes the editing can be amateurishly bad; a lot of times the film would do a fade to the next scene that was just too fast, so it would've looked better if they'd just used a cut.

The cinematography, when it's shooting the battle scenes, is a thing to behold. The spectacular shots of the helicopters flying through the sky and the giant napalm explosions in the Vietnam forests scream "epic".

The sets also help to tell the story of evil. When the main characters visit any site that's owned by the American military, it looks lived in, messy and sometimes filthy. The Vietnam village, however, is almost completely clean and tidy, that is until the American soldiers come in with the helicopters. This is basically used to once again assure us that the American military is the scum of the Earth.

There's the one part of the movie that is literally only one shot, but it really fascinates me. When they're in the choppers one of the soldiers remarks that they sit on their helmets so their testicles won't collapse while flying. One of the boat crew shrugs this off, but then we cut to a close up shot where he takes his helmet off and puts it underneath him just in case. The strange thing is I could tell you that there is a difference between this shot and the one that came before it and that the shot in question was blocked and lit for comedic purposes. The problem is I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it's because of his position in the frame or the fact that the lighting isn't as harsh. It was just really fascinating to me.

Summary: I'm conflicted on Apocalypse Now; on the one hand, it's every other Vietnam War film they forced us to watch in history class. On the other hand, it does everything so much better on a technical level that I'm inclined to call it a cut above the rest. I really wish we could get a Vietnam film with a different perspective, but this is probably the definitive Vietnam War film until that happens.



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