The way Vietnam ruptured international relations and mutated American society has been recounted in innumerable works of art, which is to say nothing of the mountains of journalism and scholarship it necessitated. But if there is one definitive creative document of the war from the American side, it’s Apocalypse Now. Forty years after its release, it remains a towering aesthetic achievement, gorgeously shot by the Italian legend Vittorio Storaro: a series of portraits that look like they’re smoldering, nearly-static images of a blue river cutting through a jungle that’s onyx-black, tracking shots of airplanes that ignore gravity completely.
Martin Sheen is extraordinary as the film’s fraying emotional center; Marlon Brando, in a famously shadowed and ad-libbed performance, is deeply unsettling. And for director Francis Ford Coppola, it capped a decade that included the first two Godfather installments and The Conversation; he was an auteur who became a commercial titan, incredibly ambitious in both regards. One of the funniest lines in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s 1993 movie True Romance comes when Christian Slater’s character, trying desperately to flatter the fictional producer of a fictional war flick, can’t help but qualify his praise: “After Apocalypse Now, I think it’s the best Vietnam movie ever.”
Other Vietnam War-set movies, like The Deer Hunter from the year before or Full Metal Jacket from a decade later, are full-fledged classics in their own right, but they are comments on or subversions of the way the war had been experienced and collectively imagined.
Apocalypse Now contains within it nearly every feeling and fear about what the war did to those living in Vietnam and those Americans who came home from Vietnam––or didn’t. And yet the points it makes about war, about not only its hellishness but its total psychological hold over combatants and bystanders alike, is more pointed than any such arguments made in popular American films today.
The movie––the production of which was, perhaps appropriately, an absolute debacle marred by a typhoon, a heart attack for Sheen, a seizure for Coppola, a cache of dead bodies sourced from a local grave robber––achieves that all-encompassing effect by centering a sense of dread. It’s there from the opening shot of an impenetrable tree line that’s soon reduced to flaming ruins; it’s there when Sheen’s Captain Willard is caught in a drunken tirade inside a humid, trashed hotel room; it leaps into American helicopters with thrown flares and rains down on Vietnamese villages like expensive napalm. It’s there when Willard realizes the Lieutenant Colonel is more concerned with surfing than with tomorrow’s mission, and it compounds when you realize you’re worried about the safety of such a brutal, bloodlusting crew of people at all. Throughout the movie there are intimations, and sometimes outright warnings, about people who have gone crazy, double-crossed one another, or gone missing in action.
As you probably know, Apocalypse Now was based loosely on Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novella from 1899, which imagined a similar mission to kill a rogue Western actor, this time on the Congo River in Africa. In the last 50 years, Heart of Darkness, which is widely studied and taught at many different levels of school in North America and in Europe, has come under scrutiny for the way it flattens African societies into (at worst) savages and (at best) props in European psychodrama. The criticisms are more than fair, but if anything that makes it an even more telling document, albeit one of the paranoid attitudes of those in the West toward what it considered a hostile, uncivilized world. Where Apocalypse Now excels is in its understanding that this fear of the unknown––of whatever’s beyond that tree line––is the cause of real physical and psychological hell for its characters, all while being something that they themselves helped create. It takes the immediate threat of being shot or mauled or impaled and compounds it with the threat of losing one’s mind in the jungle, or under a menacing ceiling fan in Saigon.
What’s puzzling, four decades after the film was released and nearly five after the American retreat from Vietnam, is how this dread of war has largely disappeared from Hollywood films. The country is certainly no less anxious––by any measure, and even when accounting for all the unspoken and undiagnosed neuroses of the past, this is one of the most anxious times on record. And it is no less at war: this century, hundreds of thousands of people have died during the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is to say nothing of conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, or etc., or of seemingly inevitable ones in Iran and elsewhere. And so you occasionally get critical-darling character studies that break out and earn more money than expected, like Zero Dark Thirty or The Hurt Locker, or movies about the mental and familial strain of war, like American Sniper, which itself functioned as a kind of soft propaganda. But you’re just as likely to get Michael Bay and Jim from The Office teaming up to make weird Benghazi fan fiction full of reactionary dog whistles.
Maybe this is because of the draft. No one is yanked out of their acid trips or surfing excursions to fight in Syria, and so the threat that the war might show up in your living room is less than ever before. (One of the most chilling depictions of the American military in a recent Hollywood movie actually comes in the alien thriller Arrival, where a private is inspired by an Alex Jones type to go rogue, bomb the perceived enemy, and court utter disaster.) Maybe it’s because Vietnam was the first American war to take place once a counterculture had seized enough of a public platform to make dissent a fixture on the nightly news; maybe everyone is simply very tired.
The point here is not that Hollywood has failed consumers or fallen short of a moral obligation. The point is that Hollywood is reflecting the new, mainstream American attitude toward war: that it is bloodless and distant, waged by volunteers and shell companies in deserts that most of us will never see. For those who hold the most economic and political power in American society, war has been abstracted in a way it never was before. If Apocalypse Now was the definitive film about war in the American consciousness for the 1970s, the modern equivalent might be War Dogs, an uneven Jonah Hill vehicle about how easy it is to live lavishly by filling weapons contracts for the Department of Defense from your air-conditioned home.
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