Re-viewing Apocalypse Now: A Meditation on the Greatest Vietnam War Movie Ever Made

Every now and then I find myself going through a fixation with the Vietnam War. This time around I watched the epic 10-part documentary on the war written by Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. After watching all 10 episodes over the span of two nights, I proceeded to dive into a plethora of essays and primary documents including Norman Podhoretz’s “A Moral and Necessary Intervention,” Robert McMahon’s “A Strategic Perspective on U.S. Involvement,” Steven Ambrose’s “The Wisdom of U.S. Nonintervention,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the 1967 bombing campaign, General William Westmoreland’s reflection in 1977 on the U.S. military’s strategy of attrition, and several firsthand accounts from soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  

This intense distillation of Vietnam War material inspired me to re-view Apocalypse Now, a film that I believe ranks ahead of The Godfather as Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the film chronicles a covert mission led by an Army Captain (Martin Sheen) to locate and assassinate a rogue Special Forces officer named Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  In the words of Robert Ebert: “More than ever it is clear that Apocalypse Now is one of the great films of all time. It shames modern Hollywood’s timidity. To watch it is to feel yourself lifted up to the heights where the cinema can take you, but so rarely does. The film is a mirror reflecting our feelings about the war in Vietnam, in all their complexity and sadness.”

There are many byzantine layers to this film, but perhaps more so than any other theme, Coppola is talking about the lies that exist beneath the veneer of civilization. While critiquing the basic motives behind imperialistic violence, Coppola is also saying something about the absurdity of history itself; how our fears and passions are crazy; and how our primal urge to carry out missions that no longer make sense leads to madness. More than a film, Apocalypse Now is a horrific meditation on the lies which seduce us into following the river wherever it leads-even if it means we must do the most inhumane things imaginable along the way. Devoid of glamor, mystique and redemption, Coppola makes the killing on screen appear genuine and illusory at the same time.  Somehow, he is able to capture a complete picture of the human condition when things fall apart.

After watching Coppola’s masterpiece again, I can say that I have a deeper appreciation for the director’s poetic mastery. There is not another film like it. Although dozens have tried to emulate its technique and style, they have all come up short. As hard as some of the scenes are to watch (the Wagner orchestrated helicopter massacre is seared into my mind forever), I think it should be required viewing for every citizen living in this country. Once again, Ebert sums it up perfectly:

“Other important films such as Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned “America,” only “the enemy,” and one director told me, “It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .”) But Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.”

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