Blog Directory CineVerse: Shot with a diamond bullet

Shot with a diamond bullet

Thursday, August 22, 2019

In some ways "Apocalypse Now" is an easy film to dissect, as its "war is hell" theme is hard to miss, and the strung-together vignette structure of the story make it play like several mini-movies within one film. But on several other levels, diving deep into Francis Ford Coppola's now 40-year-old work can be a challenging exercise, particularly when parsing through the picture's final act. But if you're willing to burrow deeper, and endure, as the Doors' Jim Morrison sang, "weird scenes inside the gold mine," you can excavate some glimmering truths about this movie. Here are several that we discussed yesterday at CineVerse:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?
  • It matters because it’s an uncompromisingly bleak vision by a master filmmaker—a depiction of war, particularly the Vietnam War, that doesn’t pull any punches, that can be visceral, gritty and disturbingly authentic as well as poetic, artistic, wildly exaggerative and over the top, and formalistic.
  • It’s worth celebrating because this is bravura filmmaking at its most daring and creative. There are no CGO pyrotechnics dazzling us here—those are real helicopters and real explosions; that’s a live animal that gets slaughtered, that’s a real river they’re filming on, and those actors truly are sweating, toiling, expressing fear and anguish. The effort and struggle that went into this movie is right up there for everyone to see and admire; you may not like the story, or some of the characters, or the dark tone, but you can’t help but be absolutely awe-inspired by the incredible sets, the battle choreography, the spot-on editing, the jaw-dropping sound design by Walter Murch, and, above all else, the breathtaking visuals achieved by one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Vittorio Storaro. Storaro and Murch each deservedly won Academy Awards for their work on this picture.
  • It has stood the test of time because it remains arguably the greatest war film ever made; the Vietnam War may be long gone, but it’s still deeply burrowed in our sociocultural consciousness, in no small part due to the power of this movie, which created iconic and indelible images in our minds that we continue to associate with that war; when people think of the American conflict in Vietnam, many conjure up images from Apocalypse Now. Platoon may be more authentic and true to the grunt’s experiences; The Deer Hunter and Coming Home may have preceded Apocalypse Now by a year, but they’re more concerned with how everyday lives were affected before and after the war; and Full Metal Jacket is a very stylized but bifurcated film that wasn’t necessarily making a statement about the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now serves as both a movie of its time—when the wounds were still fresh just a few years after America got out of Vietnam—that expresses how horrific that conflict was, as well as a timeless movie about the insanity of war, ANY war.
  • It also matters because it’s a film that probably could no longer be made today—a big budget, high-stakes, guerrilla filmmaking adventure in which one man, Francis Ford Coppola, had to literally risk everything he had to try to achieve his vision. It’s doubtful that any major studio would greenlight a production like this in the present time—a film that demands to be shot on location in dangerous conditions using practical effects and where too many uncertain variables could cause the whole project to come crashing down.
  • Interestingly, Apocalypse Now can be seen as both an antiwar film and one that can serve to glorify and romanticize combat. It straddles that line and doesn’t seem to take a stand either way, letting the viewer come to their own conclusions.
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • This was probably the most graphically violent and distressing war film made up to that time. While The Deer Hunter from 1978 had a few intense sequences, like its Russian Roulette scene, that technically wasn’t a combat scene. Apocalypse Now paved the way for more realism, intense brutality, and morally disturbing scenes and situations in war pictures to follow. Likewise, the high production values, massive set pieces, and epic scope of the film raised the bar, inspiring many subsequent war movies to amp up their visuals and effects.
  • This is also the picture that gave war movies a rock and roll soundtrack. Today, when the Vietnam War is depicted in a film, one or more scenes almost always feature classic rock songs that were endemic to that period. I can’t think of a combat film before Apocalypse Now that features a rock and roll soundtrack.
  • It proved that a violent war movie could also be an arthouse film, an artistic expression of man’s inner darkness that is as philosophical and thought-provoking as it is entertaining as a dark episodic story that satisfies as a battle/adventure movie.
  • Consider how iconic and memorable that Ride of the Valkyries helicopter sequence and Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” quote has become; it has been spoofed and recreated in countless movies and TV shows—from Small Soldiers and The Simpsons to Rango and Jarhead.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Apocalypse Now?
  • The capacity for man to turn to the dark side of his soul. Remember that this screenplay, originally written by John Milius, was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness, another existential tale that examines how man is capable of abandoning civilization and indulging his primordial instincts and savage nature. The travel up the river and into increasingly dangerous jungle territory itself represents a journey into man’s inner darkness and departure away from reason, order, and sanity. We see that the steadily darkening jungle, as metaphor for humankind’s dark side, can unleash tigers, bullets, arrows, spears, cults and madmen.
  • The insanity and horror of war. The film gives us one example after another of how pointless and futile the Vietnam War was for Americans involved. We see how innocents, like the girl on the boat scurrying to retrieve her puppy, are brutally killed; how the military brass is willing to put many men’s lives in danger and take priority away from other matters simply to assassinate one man who has apparently gone crazy, a man whose instincts about killing suspected spies turned out to be right but who has disobeyed orders. We see how, despite being vastly outmanned and outweaponed, the native enemy on the ground can take out at a couple of helicopters and kill and maim a few soldiers.
  • Western vs. Eastern values. The characters and soldiers in Apocalypse Now are continually reminded of what they’re missing back home: things like pretty girls, rock music, partying, and surfing. They don’t want to be in Vietnam and are eager to get back home. By contrast, the native peoples are embroiled in a long-running civil war and are willing to do whatever it takes to run these invaders out of their country. Kurtz’s speech about the severed inoculated arms of children reinforces how determined the Vietnamese are to thwart their enemies and resist outside influences.
  • The masking of identities. Several characters don war paint and apply camouflage color suggesting that it’s easier to cope with the horrors of war and their missions when hiding behind a mask. We also see how Kurtz remains enshrouded in shadow, with only portions of his face apparent, insinuating that he cannot truly emerge into the light and present his full identity—he has journeyed figuratively too far into the darkness.
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in 1979, and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • Due to its graphic content, adult themes, and reputation as an unsettling war film, it’s possible that Apocalypse Now had a more limited appeal to mature adults and military veterans during its debut. It garnered mixed reviews from critics at the time, which may have hurt its reputation initially.
  • Today, however, it’s regarded as a masterpiece by the vast majority of critics and fans alike and is probably watched by a much wider swath of the population.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • As a period piece portraying the Vietnam War, it certainly does its job in staying true to its time and place, so it’s hard to identify anything that feels outdated or aged.
  • On the other hand, you could make a case that Apocalypse Now is too one-sided, that it doesn’t really show the suffering and sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people in this conflict. But that would make it a very different story, of course.
This is a birthday celebration, after all, and birthdays are all about presents. Except it’s the fans who continue to get the gifts. What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • Apocalypse Now’s greatest gift is its unparalleled craftsmanship and attention to detail. This movie makes you feel like you’re in that boat with Willard and company, sweating on that river, breathing in the secondhand smoke from the marijuana, inhaling that napalm gasoline smell, experiencing the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you sense some unseen danger hidden in the jungle bush about to attack.
  • Another of its greatest gifts is its narrative structure. For the first two acts, it is episodic, which serves, like Homer’s The Odyssey, as a great sprawling journey and quest—although a dark one. We come to care about the members of Willard’s crew and are sickened to see most of them get killed off as the story progresses. Then, amazingly, once they reach Kurtz’s compound, the narrative completely unravels, and we’re left in the dark as to how this story will conclude. Some would say that the way the movie departs that vignette formula, abandons our forward progress up the river, forces us to sit in the dark to listen to Kurtz’s not-so-insane-after-all philosophical musings, and wait patiently to learn what Willard is going to do, muddies up the last act. But without those final scenes, and minus the gravitas of an enshrouded Marlon Brando confronting his assassin, the quest—and the inner conflict it generates—doesn’t mean much. The journey holds the story, but the destination is what truly matters.
  • Even if you don’t care for this film, it’s hard to deny the majesty of its visuals. This is some of the finest cinematography ever featured in a motion picture, with images carved into your consciousness that you can never unsee. The natural and chiaroscuro lighting, depth of field, aviation photography, smoke and fog imagery, and overall look of this picture create an unforgettable impression.
Do you think this movie will still be widely watched and considered relevant in another 40 years? Why or why not?
  • It's likely that Apocalypse Now will only grow in stature, reputation and admiration among serious cinephiles and casual movie fans alike; that’s because it will continue to garner strong word of mouth as one of those “must-see” movies and incite ongoing arguments about what is the greatest war movie of all time.

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