Apocalypse Now (1979) (R)

"Apocalypse Now" begins suddenly, without apologies. The film opens to the dull sound of helicopters running in the distance. We see a forest, lush and green. While the picture is coming into focus, the camera does nothing. It sits and records the trees, shifting slightly in the wind. Then, unexpectedly, a great explosion rips apart the foliage and the trees burst into flames. The camera moves now, slowly to the right. The film fades in and out as Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) lies on his bed. The ceiling fan above him is making him remember the fighting in Vietnam.
In a growling narration, he tells the audience that he while he was in Vietnam, he longed to be back home. When he got the chance after his first tour to return home, all he thought about was going back to war.
Now he sits in a room in Saigon, waiting for a mission, praying for a mission. The wait is killing him, literally. He thinks about his enemy growing stronger as he lays here in a pool of his own sweat, blood, and lethargy.
But then, in answer to his prayers and to punish him for his sins...he gets a mission—but not the mission he was expecting.
After a meeting with several commanding officers, his mission is spelled out: find Colonel Walter Kurtz and kill him. This colonel has gone off the deep end. His mind has shattered and made the officer become unstable and irrational. Killing sprees, murder charges, and an aura of great mystery cloud Willard's understanding of the man he is supposed to kill.
The mission, he is told, never existed.
So begins Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"; which, after watching, I am convinced is the director's crowning achievement and one of the greatest movies ever made.
Many war movies (or anti-war movies) make a direction in their conveyance of the source material. For Oliver Stone, war was about the individual lost in a world of strife. For Spielberg, it was loyalty. For Malick, war was the rape of the natural world. For Kubrick, war was a childish nonsense with deadly consequence that split man in two. But with Coppola, war is about the madness and the insanity.
In fact the entire movie plays out like a slowly boiling vat of water. It starts off with a calculated coolness and transitions in a roiling world of sheer madness.
Captain Willard finds himself traveling up river to find Colonel Kurtz. The colonel has disappeared with a group of devotees into the jungles of Cambodia...where the Americans shouldn't be. The clues Kurtz leaves behind are shrouded with many questions. On the way to kill him, Willard finds that he is learning more about the man than he intended to.
The company on the boat is limited to five, and only Captain Willard knows where they're going. On their way, they meet the odd Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and Coppola slyly pushes the viewer towards seeing war the way he does. Kilgore is a trigger-happy, simple minded man who could quite possibly be a danger to both himself and his men. He is described as having a light around him, because he knows that he will get through the war without a scratch on his body. It's from him that we get the famous line "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning". What he is referring to is the gasoline that lingers in the air after a village has been decimated.
Kilgore seems more keen on talking about surfing than he is about winning the war. He knows the war will come to an end eventually and he just assumes that he will be the victor.
Once escorted farther up river, Coppola brings vivid scene after scene to the viewer in order for us to progress to the insanity of the final moments. Each scene reflects what man is turning into because of war and the effect it has on him.
When you think of the impact that this film has, it's almost insulting to think that it didn't win the Best Picture Oscar ("Kramer vs. Kramer" won). From helicopters blaring "Ride of the Valkyries" to Marlon Brandon emerging from the shadows, the film is virtually flawless and exquisitely stunning. It's s real shame that Martin Sheen didn't get nominated for his role as the slowly unwinding captain, who finds more than he bargained for.
Every second of the movie is hypnotic and epic on its own level. Once every so often a film comes along and defines film for another decade...this is that film for the 70s and 80s. It's also a high water mark to achieve when looking at films today.
This film took home the Palme d'Or for Coppola and remains today one of the best war movies.
"Apocalypse Now" is visually electrifying and terrifyingly good. I don't think that my words can do it justice...it's as good as they come.

Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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