Apocalypse Now is a masterfully crafted, wrenching and evocative film gorged with the horror and insanity of America’s war against Vietnam. But this martial super-spectacular dead-ends in confusion and mystification despite director Francis Ford Coppola’s avowed intention to explore the experience so Americans could “put it behind.”
Coppola’s recreation of modern warfare is technologically and psychologically stunning. Mists and explosions blindingly illuminate the eerie, deranging oppressiveness of the jungle as the sound system surrounds and disorients the audience with a sensory blitz of roaring helicopters, weapons fire, screams, and the monumental crescendos of Wagner.
But an apocalypse is a revelation, a vision with meaning. Coppola doesn’t tell us why we were there and he doesn’t essentially object to us having been there. His focus on horror, banality and paranoia doesn’t even amount to a pacifist appeal, because the only excitement in the picture is the destruction itself.
Devoid of revelations, Apocalypse is actually two films. One is a psychotic-poetic miasma of battle: soldiers loaded on drugs, crazed officers, and helpless Vietnamese victims. The second film, a close adaption of Joseph Conrad’s “coming to manhood” classic, The Heart of Darkness, injects a strain of ambiguity that deepens the overall floundering.
Coppola tries to deal with the predicament of Black soldiers fighting a white man’s war against other people of color, and the ensuing polarization between Blacks and whites that intensifies the war’s madness. But his Blacks are jive-artist stereotypes or inscrutable technicians denied any characterization or impact.
In racist fashion, the Vietnamese appear only as a backdrop for what is “real” — the psychological mewling of the two white male, U.S. protagonists.
Coppola exalts the reactionary Kurtz (played by a stoned-looking Brando) who is not condemned by the brass for going too far, but for doing so without orders. Kurtz’s ruthless slaughter and sadism seem preferable to the political maneuvering of the military bureaucrats; it is not Kurtz’s wanton acts that are questioned but the premature timetable for committing them.
The only way to put Vietnam “behind” us is to come to grips with the ultimate horror of the cause of the war — which lives on in capitalist America’s rapacious economic system and the racist, sexist, violent mentality that the system breeds and thrives on. Substituting spectacle for political understanding, Coppola actually plays into the macho myth that a tougher stance by the U.S. army could have won the war in three days. This idiocy bolsters today’s hysteria about the hostages in Iran: we could supposedly free them if we just had the balls to nuke Khomeini.
Like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now only distorts the real meaning of Vietnam. A military travelogue is neither a statement nor an interesting movie.