Is it the mere visual presentation of action caught on tape? Is it a masterfully brought to life script? Is film acting that engrosses the audience so completely that one completely forgets that acting is even going on? Is a film the nirvana one experiences when writing, directing, cinematography, the written word and production design all blossom into one beautiful flower?
What is a film?
If you've already answered this question, then "Apocalypse Now" may not be an experience for you. "Apocalypse Now" transcends the written page, the actors contained within, and even the direction of Coppola himself by elevating itself upon the inherent confines of traditional moviegoing and by elevating itself above the concept of genre. It would be easy, quite easy, to dismiss "Apocalypse Now" as a "war movie" with its expressively simplistic theme that "war is hell." To make such a dismissal would be a grave mistake, and I believe an inaccurate one. Despite all of his flaws as a writer and director, Francis Ford Coppola is, perhaps, one of American cinema's greatest visionaries. "Apocalypse Now" is a film of vision that doesn't so much teach us anything we didn't already know...it has no deep, underlying meaning and no sense of pro-war or anti-war morality. Instead, "Apocalypse Now" becomes a film about man's war within himself and with each other. The vision that Coppola brings to life onscreen is a vision of war as poetry and as of life. It is a vision that is at once frightening yet seductive, offensive and yet intriguing. "Apocalypse Now" is painful to watch, and yet more painful to ignore. "Apocalypse Now" is Coppola's re-interpretation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," an interpretation that invites criticism, judgment and apprehension. "Apocalypse Now", a film with great histrionics, somehow never feels pretentious because of the great humanity contained within the characters presented here as neither good or bad but simply existent.
"Apocalypse Now" so perfectly mixes the personal and global demons of war that to define the film is to restrict the experience of viewing it. Robert Duvall, as Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, leads one of the greatest military scenes ever captured on film in a way in which the recent "Jarhead" failed repeatedly. In this scene, the audience becomes fully enveloped in the experience of war from the mind-altering sadness to the claustrophobic fear to the near orgasmic release of military triumph. Duvall is simply hypnotic in a role that requires him to be both disciplined yet crazed, passionate yet oddly disloyal.
The same is true of Martin Sheen, whose scenes exhibit moments of great peace and resolution surrounded by senseless and spontaneous rage and paranoia. Similar experiences are offered throughout the film by nearly the entire cast including Marlon Brando, Fredric Forrest and Larry Fishburne.
"Apocalypse Now" works brilliantly because, despite Coppola's tendency towards excess, he believes passionately in these characters and their stories.
The film works not because it has a brilliant script. Quite honestly, it doesn't.
The film works not because of Coppola's stellar direction. Quite honestly, it isn't.
The film works not even because of the brilliant performances of the cast though, quite honestly, they are quite brilliant.
Instead, the film works because Coppola trusted the vision enough to allow the cast, crew and audience to fully experience the vision. Coppola gave birth to the vision, but then released it into the hands of those whom he had entrusted with its development.
"Apocalypse Now" is not just a film. It is an experience. It is the experience of war, both internal and external. It is the experience of sadness and grief and rage and exhilaration. "Apocalypse Now" both celebrates life and destroys it.
"Apocalypse Now" is the kind of film that makes me thank God I fell in love with cinema at an early age, started writing and became a critic. It's the kind of film that makes me forget I'm a critic when I am watching it because I'm simply consumed by the experience of watching the film. "Apocalypse Now" is not a perfect film. It is, however, a perfect film experience.