“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam”: even director Francis Ford Coppola’s (in)famous reflection on the making of Apocalypse Now reeks of American egotism. Nonetheless, the film really does feel like Coppola’s accidental-intentional replay of the Vietnam War, a psychedelic maelstrom of American excess searching for an answer to a problem it invented, a solution to mask the film’s own complicity in problems it refuses to acknowledge. A literal theater of war, Coppola’s film is cinematic maximalism at its most perverse, an enormous, egotistical portrait of egocentrism that doubles back to a stunning sort of critique via self-immolation. Fully criticizing and even more fully replicating the imperialistic gigantism of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now becomes that which it critiques, and it devours itself in the process.
Opposites though they might be in their attitudes toward minimalism and maximalism, Coppola’s Godfather films and The Conversation are remarkably perfect objects: precise, manicured, and controlled machines which are, of course, about the precise and all-controlling machinery of American capitalism. Apocalypse Now, comparatively, is a mess. The film hits so hard and with such ferocity that it collapses from exhaustion, so much so that it took all of three editors (Lisa Fruchtman, Walter Murch, and Gerald Greenberg) and three years to release a finalized version that was, even then, only tenuously legible as a self-contained, discreet object. The film’s edits are war wounds and battle scars, lesions that are also stitches connecting and breaking disparate material and threatening to re-open the film even as they try desperately to close it up into an analyzable text. It opens itself to the ghosts in its (and capitalism’s) machine-work, etherealizing itself and diffusing us into a non-space that is troublingly divorced from empirical context. It echoes the myopic access endemic to American imperialism, indexing its subjects’ hubris and its creators’ maddened attempts to replicate it. All these years later, Apocalypse Now still feels unfinished, hovering around a center it cannot find, slowly expanding and moving on screen like magma.
In this, Apocalypse Now’s style apes its narrative focus on unfurling chaos and uncertainty, the film following a half-remembered nightmare sketch of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then uproots even that. As in Conrad, a Westerner is, indeed, traveling down a non-Western river in search of a Military commander who has “gone native,” to use the era-appropriate expression. In this case, it is Martin Sheen’s Benjamin Willard traveling down a riverboat in Vietnam to search for Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz, who apparently has taken over and then become a god-like figure to a small selection of multi-racial soldiers and civilians. But beyond the broadest, haziest of strokes of Conrad, Apocalypse Now really is following its own, increasingly wandering, wayward sense of temporal progression and thematic non-continuity, washing us again and again onto the shores of an apocalyptic void it has no idea how to escape.
Although Apocalypse Now generally follows Willard along with Chief Petty Officer Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), and Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne) down the Mekong River to Kurtz’s compound, the overall sense of the riverboat journey is a series of impressions more than a narrative, a slurry of sensations as disturbing, provocative, and impossible as Brando’s mush-mouthed slur of suggestions when they get there. In the famous conclusion to the first half of the journey, they come upon Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore, about to bomb the Vietnamese coastline in order to more effectively surf, a scene famously set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and indicative of the film’s sensibility more widely. Coppola’s vision obviously paints Kilgore as a cartoonish interloper, a deluded double of Kurtz’s messianic maestro, but the film itself clearly revels in the same impulses of war as theater as Kilgore. The unnecessary violence of Kilgore’s bombing, by which I of course mean Coppola’s bombing, is less a gothic double or toxic echo than a parodic reenactment of Vietnam, the filmmaker inviting the very exorcism through explosion he is ostensibly criticizing.
In turn, Coppola’s vision both legitimizes and interrupts Wagner’s desire to create a “total” work of art that invites every bodily sense and evokes a sublime unity beyond any one person. On one hand, Apocalypse Now really does seer itself into your soul, accumulating a totalizing, sickening bodily sensibility more than just about any American film I can name. Yet it also achieves this through breaks and interruptions, completing rewriting itself several times, rather than hiding the seams in an illusion of completion. Unsurprising for Coppola, it feels as though a hundred other potential edits could exist within the assembled material, which is both punishingly intense yet diaphanously fluid. It never quite accesses some dormant secret that seems to eke out like tar in the cracks of the film, less a finished statement than a ghostly moan appearing out of the past.
Indeed, ghosts hover throughout Apocalypse Now, especially in Coppola’s Final Cut that returns the film closer to its Cannes Premiere cut in 1979 by adding back in the extended delay in the tatters of a French rubber plantation. (This inclusion echoes 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux, but leaves out the frankly unnecessary and didactic Playboy Playmate sequences added in at that time as well). The most spectral sequence of an already translucent movie, the plantation sequence nominally reflects the film touching down to Earth, away from its own miasmatic, drugged-out, hermetic head-space and into a barely-glimpsed history. Yet in slowing down to sit with history, Apocalypse Now only affirms how slippery its engagement is, conjuring a haunted space that always exists at a remove. Rather than historical access to a recovered space, Apocalypse Now offers a submerged, dimly-viewed penumbra, a hazy encounter with a truth it can’t show us directly even when it seems to be trying to.
Even the way that the film’s structure vaguely maps onto stages or levels of hell suggests a symbolically-freighted narrative that the filmmaking, in turn, simply blows to smithereens, refusing to sit at a metaphorical level when it can shiver apart the stitches holding the metaphor together. Apocalypse Now offers us the gaps of its own construction, giving us seemingly transparent, boldface imagery, answers ready for the pulling, that remains finally opaque. Right from the beginning, a prelude set to The Door’s “The End” where dissolves and cross-fades signal an apocalyptic fugue of meaningless entropy, a psychic void, the film already submerges us in a murky, swampy horror that suggests Suspiria and Italian grime more than American New Wave grittiness. Vittorio Storaro’s apocalyptic cinematography suggests a phosphorescent abyss, all acid-soaked yellows and plunging blacks. Here, the ostensible everyman Willard is already figured as no less debased and distraught than anyone else in the film. A hellish overlay in a motel room suggests the horrible stench of aimless wanton destruction refracted back onto the soul.
To its credit, this opening is very much a primer for the film as a whole: Apocalypse Now continually loses and periodically rediscovers mutated versions of its own threads in a stoned stupor, a haze of psychic brokenness sickly suggested in Storaro’s forlorn cinematography and the film’s notoriously elliptical editing. The film sacrifices conceptual clarity for the liveliness of incompleteness, anticipating Coppola’s 2009 experiment in cinematic editing, Tetro. It embodies its sense of narrative confusion ontologically, and it genuinely does feel for extended stretches like portions of the film could be reorganized without losing much “logical” sense. The style of Apocalypse Now is both a jaundiced and crazed rebuke of its subject and a recognition of its spirit, a strange and beguiling portrait of filmmakers assuming they could master and control a theater production, of war or film, in a foreign land. A probably-mistaken conjuration, it evokes its themes far more effectively than it would have had it more overtly “criticized” its subjects.