Monday, May 26, 2008

The Great Movies: "Apocalypse Now "

At the Movies with Michael5000

Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979.

I have seen Apocalypse Now twice before, once when I was in college and again about ten years ago. The first time, I found its very dark depiction of the ironies of war nothing less than emotionally gutting. I wasn’t quite so traumatized the second time around, but still found the viewing experience to be pretty grim going. So this time, I was surprised and maybe a little unsettled to find Apocalypse Now, sure, still disturbing, but also.... well, often quite funny.

This may not speak well of me. In fact, I’m concerned enough with the state of my soul on this point that I’ve come up with a set of hypotheses to explain the change in my outlook.
  • Living in a violent society, I have become accustomed and desensitized to violence.
  • I’ve read enough history by now to not be shocked by war and its casual atrocities – which is just another way of being accustomed to violence, I suppose,
  • Before, I took the movie as more of a literal document; now, I’m recognizing that it exaggerates its absurdities for effect. Exaggerated absurdities are funny.
  • The movie isn’t as shocking anymore just because I’ve seen it before.
Or maybe it's a heady mix of all four. Further research on this question is clearly needed.

The second thing that struck me in this viewing is the conspicuous absence of Southeast Asian characters. The enemy is by and large just an anonymous fusillade of bullets, and when Vietnamese or Hmong people make it onto the screen, as in the final sequences, they are basically scenery. Now, that’s absolutely fine, in that this is about an American (and the American) experience of the Vietnam War. But, this is also a movie that is often treated as the definitive document on the War -- comparing it to other American films about the war, as well as to Vietnamese treatments, Ebert simply calls it "the best Vietnam film." I'm not so sure, though, that you can make a "best Vietnam film" without the perspective of the people through whose country and villages the war was fought. I'd like to see Coppola make a companion film from a second perspective, like Clint Eastwood did with his two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima, or see a response to Apocalypse Now from a Vietnamese director.

I wanted to find out what my Hmong friend thinks of the film, but he hasn’t seen it. He sounded curious, though, so I’ll let you know if he reports back. Here's the key question I’d ask him: would the Hmong of his parents’ generation really be likely to adopt a clearly psychotic American military officer as their leader and God? Because it kind of seems like that's a logical flaw in the story, don’t you think?

Finally, I should say that the movie remains brilliant. Its pacing, composition, acting, and direction are all amazingly strong. It’s thoroughly engrossing.

Plot: Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in the Vietnam War. A man travels down a river into a lawless wilderness, having episodic adventures that force him to confront the primal brutalities of human nature seething below the thin veil of civilized restraint. The horror! The horror! See also: Aguire; the Wrath of God.

Visuals: Quite lovely. Apocalypse Now is among other things a special effects spectacular. The images and landscapes, whether lovely or horrific, are beautifully framed and stick with you once you've seen them.

Dialogue: It is an image-driven movie, but the writing and strong performances mesh to create very vivid characters. This is not a war movie where soldiers are interchangeable, or where they all represent an identifiable "type." Everyone on the boat seems like a real person.

Prognosis: You've probably already seen Apocalypse Now. If you haven't, you need to weigh the benefits of watching a truly great movie against, well, the horror! That line (for the uninitiated: a character gasps "the horror! the horror!" a direct quotation from Heart of Darkness, at a key point in the film) is easy to have fun with after the lights come back up, but while you are watching you are forced to confront in a small way some of the horror of the worst in human nature.

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