Originally Reviewed – 1/26/2012
Note: Being this is my 100th review on Rotten Tomatoes, I decided to write a piece on one of the films that helped spur my love of cinema. Luckily for me, one of those films, Apocalypse Now, just happened to be next on my Review My Collection list. While this follows the traditional review format, I look some liberties in talking about my personal connection to the movie. Also note, this is a review of the original 1979 film, not the Redux edition from 2001. Thanks for your continued readership!
I’m not quite sure when I first ran into the subject of review #100, but my first sharp recollection was a viewing for my Literature in Film class, junior year of college. The opening scene struck me from the get go. The glaze eyed stare of Martin Sheen as helicopters juxtapose with ceiling fans to the drive of The Doors marked a manic, perfect beginning to a manic, perfect film. Like Martin, I was beginning a journey of sorts, his a slow river ride into the surreal world of Vietnam, mine a struggling step into the world of film criticism. I had already brushed against this film once or twice thanks to my father, but this time was different. My goal was to take a scene and dissect it bit by bit. Take a classic piece of a landmark film and break it up into a series of pans, tilts and pulls.
The scene I chose was the first landing of the PBR on the shores of a Vietnamese colony, the scene where Willard first meets the manic Colonel Killgore (Robert Duvall). The scene always fascinated me but this time it was different. Separated from the drama of the moment, I looked for the first time beyond the story, beyond the frame and understood exactly why it was engaging, why the entire film is brilliant. Technique. Director Francis Ford Coppola treated every shot with a meticulous eye and perfect composition. No shot wasted, no line of dialogue squandered, this five minute scene told me everything I needed to know about how filmmaking could be approached given the hand of a master. Suddenly, it all meant sense.
The plot itself is a deceptively simple one. Captain Willard (Sheen) is on a secret mission to “terminate the command” of one Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated officer who has gone rouge, fighting his own brand of warfare in the Cambodian jungle. Escorting the captain on his slow cruise down the Nung River, is a tidy cross section of the US forces in Vietnam. From a no nonsense boat commander to a professional surfer just looking for his next tan, the crew captures the random nature of the US occupation. Most of these draftees were bottom feeders, souls nobody gave two ticks about and Coppola perfectly illustrates the dichotomy between the men on a mission and the boys who just want to go home.
Coppola also gives his actors plenty of room to work and build engaging characters. No one cast member, from Sheen on down, is given the short end of the dramatic stick. Be it Chef’s wild ramblings about a tiger attack or Lance’s slow metamorphosis, the cast is well directed, bringing small snippets of life to the somber journey. Sheen himself is near brilliant in a career defining role, teetering between unhinged and dutiful throughout the feature. As Sheen rolls down the river, he learns more and more about the mysterious Kurtz and with every passing page of the dossier, starts to respect him. The journey is both a physical and emotional one and Sheen does a great job in balancing both sides. Brando is also fantastic as the brooding Kurtz, chilling in voiceover, tape recordings and in the final reveal in the Cambodian compound.
In writing this review, I find myself feeling connected to this landmark picture in a way I didn’t expect. From the patient photography, to the unorganized madness of a bridge embattlement, Coppola poured his heart, soul and finances into a film that can only be called a masterpiece of 20th century filmmaking. From my perspective, the movie is more than a surrealistic ride down a Vietnamese river. It’s a statement of human nature, a piercing look into change, progress, and our baser impulses. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola took a short novella written in 1903 and adapted it into one of the most complete Vietnam films ever made.
My connection is a more personal one. Back on that day in 2002, I looked at a movie beyond the gun fire and explosions, the pure entertainment of it all. That day I discovered a world of art and beauty, a place I felt closest to with a notebook in hand. A journey of my own started that afternoon, a trip that’s taken me through a hundred reviews, some glowing, some scathing but all of them honest, heartfelt and a joy to write. Like Captain Willard in Coppola’s Vietnam epic, I started out with dim expectations of what was to come and while I’ve yet to reach my credit roll, I know I’ll be infinitely surprised when I get there.
Score – 100%