APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
After Francis Ford Coppola dragged me through over three hours of pure cinematic glory, I was tempted to write: "Yeah, I guess it was pretty good" and leave it at that. But the truth is, I couldn't praise this movie enough if I tried. The short of it is, Apocalypse Now is a Vietnam War film about a soldier set on the task to assassinate a "renegade" colonel. The long of it is, Apocalypse Now is an epic tale about the survival of humanity and sanity in the face of war. I couldn't help but think about my old friend Yossarian, and I think the crux of the plot is best described in his maker's words:
For the first third of the movie, I could have sworn it was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Again and again we were assaulted by characters that existed uniquely and completely in this fucked up world called Vietnam, 1969. They live by their own morals and scramble to keep themselves sane with acts of petty and life-threatening lunacy. Indeed, Vietnam does unravel into an apocalyptic war zone reminiscent of zombie films and end-of-the-world stints. It's always the freaks, the insane, the ones a little off kilter to begin with that somehow manage to scramble to the top of the hierarchy and instate their own brand of living. I would like to say that it's The Lord Of The Flies: The Adult Version, except they never really did grow up. These are boys, kids who, in this day and age, would be most stressed over getting a fake I.D. passed the liquor counter.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed."It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed. (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
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But more on the characters later. A moment for the cinematography. A black screen. A white command report clicks through and stops. Chopper wings heave through the air, slicing its huge wings passed the Saigon palm trees. A reprieve of black. The same helicopter lolls through the sky, retracing it's steps. The slow pick up of The End by The Doors hangs in the helicopter's wake, meanders through the sound like a soft drunken lull. And, with just as much ease, Saigon glows a vicious red and burns to the ground. Classic. Immediately, we're there. We're in it. And it's fucking badass. But Mr. Coppola does not stop there. Despite the fact that this movies has hours upon hours of footage (so much so that some deleted scenes themselves last nearly 20 minutes long...can you imagine that? Just flipping through a completely polished 20 minutes and thinking "Eh. Lop it off"?), each frame could have come out of a painting. Visually, it's stunning, beautiful, and weighted with destruction. All I can say is every penny poured into Coppola's outrageous budget--worth it.
The funny thing about this film is that, even while watching it, you get the feeling that it shouldn't be a film. The characters are too rich, the plot is too complex--cinematically, it shouldn't work. Coppola should've thrown it to the novelists and had a field day. It reads like Catch-22 or Heart Of Darkness. He leaves out no details and makes no sharp and hasty cuts. Instead, we meander through the film the way we would a book. Hell, I even put the film down half way through, saved my page, and picked it back up the next day. At yet, as much as I want to tell Coppola to start writing novels, I can't ignore the fact that this movie is just as much about the visuals as it is about the story. And so, if I have to watch a 3-4 hour novel just to keep the stunning images, so be it.
I don't want to pick apart the story too much because trying to dissect this movie is like explaining Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. You can only get so far because you finally have to give in with "well, you just had to be there." So instead, I'm going to do one of my favorite parts of reviewing and go through it via the characters/actors.
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Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando): Because, really. What would a good Coppola film be without Marlon Brando? After being dragged through the marshy swamp of Vietnam, I was expecting to be thoroughly disappointed with what I found on the other side. Not in a bad way, exactly, he'd just been built up so much, I didn't see how they could really get anyone to live up to that. And I was so glad to be mistaken. With a mixture of Marlon Brando's I-speak-with-marbles-in-my-mouth mumble and intense yellow lighting, somehow Kurtz was brilliant, savage, and deeply and frighteningly human at the same time.
Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen): Martin Sheen is a bit of an odd duck. When I think of him, I see Wall Street (1987), I see the old man act. I don't know him as the young, handsome, gritty man that he was hardly ten years earlier. The truth is...he really was young, handsome, and gritty. His narrative tone is sharp and cold, his character is rough yet passive. He's someone dark, a killer, and yet some how someone we feel connected to. Maybe it's his doomed, sarcastic humor that buffers his gruff attitude, but either way, Martin Sheen pulls off every moment perfectly. We're with him for the ride.
"Chef" Hicks (Frederic Forrest): I had the good fortune of having no fucking idea who Frederic Forrest is. And after scanning his resume on IMDB, I don't actually think anyone else knows either. Which is just fine by me, because now he's just "the Chef". And what a great character. Hailing from New Orleans, all the Chef wants to do is cook and stay in the fucking boat. We can't help but wonder if Bubba Gump didn't pull a little inspiration for his shrimping boat.
"Clean" Miller (Laurence Fishburne): It took me a while to pin the face, it really did. I got it, I recognized it, and then I went "No. That can't be him. Can it?" Laurence Fishburne is definitely a man of many faces, and while he'll always be good ol' Morpheus to me, I commend him for his versatile skills. His character is young (well, he's super fucking young), immature in a boyish way, and probably one of the last people you want holding a gun. Well. Maybe second to last, after the Chef. Coughcoughtigercoughcough.
Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms): He's a surfer dude. Next question. I kid. Lance is actually one of the most endearing characters in the entire movie. In honor of the wise old tradition of "Tune in, drop out", Lance did what was probably the only sane thing to do in Vietnam. He dropped.
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Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall): Now here's a great character. Played by a great actor, no less. Another bit of memorabilia from The Godfather--Coppola keeps his boys happy. He's that guy you're always waiting for in a war movie--brass, arrogant, cocky as shit. Played too much Cowboys and Indians when he was little and now he thinks the world really works like that. My only problem with his character was that there wasn't enough of him--I could've had a whole movie with him and been happy. Except his character is kind of a one trick pony, and I'm glad he came and went as he did.
Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper): Between Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider (1969), you could never in a million years convince me that Dennis Hopper was a Republican. Politics aside, once again, Hopper is brilliant. But then again, he's just really playing his own tripped-out self, so I'm not sure he could really go wrong in this one. But the wacked-outness is extraordinarily convincing, keep it up, Hopper!
Col. Lucas (Harrison Ford): Harrison Ford! I saw him and suddenly got that much happier. For one, he's ridiculously young in this movie. We have to remember, this is Han Solo right between Episode IV and V. Harrison Ford is just about at the top of his game and yet still so young. I don't know why he chose his character trait to be that the man constantly cleared his throat, most prominently when he was delivering classified information, but I think it's brilliant.
With all these characters, the ultimate reward of this movie is the journey. And the transformation that each and every one of these characters go through--the rough and ragged Willard, the rag-tag bunch of kids on a boat...they all disintegrate into the fabric of Vietnam and come out on the other end half-alive at best. You would think that after two hours of a boat trip and then another chunk of time cut out for the ending, it would be hard to the movie to finish with anything other than "Are we there yet?". And yet, Coppola gives us something substantial, satisfying, and wholly deep. Something you don't really want to overanalyze or articulate, even though the symbolism is all there begging to be taken apart and dissected. Instead, just let the surreal, stunningly beautiful, soul-swallowing movie end, let it sink into your bones, and thank Coppola for the best Vietnam War movie in existence.
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End intellectual rant. I swear next time I'm going to rewatch the A-Team (2010) and fill my entire post with "THEY FUCKING FLEW A MOTHERFUCKING TANK!"