Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's gargantuan, all-encompassing Vietnam (anti-)War film has got most every hallmark of a timeless movie masterpiece. In scope and ambition it's in a league of its own. Apocalypse Now aspires to be the war movie to end all war movies, both thematically and qualitywise. It certainly is a testament to Coppola's ability and artistry that his film even after 40+ years looks and feels unconnected to its year of production. Not only is the film magnificently shot and has arguably the best production values of any film from the 1970s, but there's also a timelessness to the characters. Admittedly, they do belong to the political and historical era in which they exist, but the realization of them appears to be unaffected by the typical traits of 1970s film characters.
After a wonderfully evocative onset, which establishes Martin Sheen's delicately subdued Captain Willard, we embark on what can only be characterized as a war road movie when Sheen is accompanied by Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms and Larry Fishburne up the Nùng river. The first part of the film shows the chaos and meaninglessness of war. The unaffected and invincible Lt. Col Kilgore (iconically played by Robert Duvall) is only concerned with surfing amidst an onslaught on a village of civilians. This segment, which has a certain whimsical quality, is an antipole to what awaits Willard further upstream, when the chaos and meaninglessness is substituted with desperation and madness. This is the process of war, suggests Coppola; how it eventually transforms you from a trigger-happy, unfazed patriot (Duvall) via an introspective questioner (Sheen) and into a full-blown deranged demagogue (Brando).
Apocalypse Now is a resonant film, no matter where you're coming from. Although it's anti-war in essence, it's not devoid of romanticism. The landscape populated with the spectacles of war is at times photographed with a sense of longing, almost as a wonderland. But it's a dangerous wonderland from which there is no escape, at least no sane escape, claims Coppola towards the end of his film. Ultimately, the climax and wrap-up becomes, if not exactly an anticlimax, then at least the film's least remarkable part. As Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz takes center stage, the film becomes a little too wrapped up in its own mysticism. As if Coppola lets himself be beguiled by the very character and phenomenon his film is supposed to warn us against. Or perhaps because once you signed Marlon Brando and let him take command at this point in his career, an unavoidable decay set in. If so, I suppose he was right for the part of Kurtz after all.
PS! This review is based on the re-edited Redux version, released in 2001, which adds 49 minutes of material compared to the original cut, including two new scenes. One of these scenes, from a French rubber plantation, gives the film a significant added backdrop, according to this reviewer.