Reviews: Apocalypse Now

A Masterpiece with a Marlon Brando-Shaped Hiccup

Note that this is a review of the theatrical version (the only version I've seen) which I saw for the first time recently.

What can I say about Apocalypse Now that hasn't already been said (and far better than I ever could)? It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece. There's a reason this film is a cornerstone of American cinema and considered one of the greatest films ever produced.

Everything about it — the cinematography, score, performances, pacing — comes together to create a surreal sense of terror and dread, a true descent into madness and hell. More than any horror film I've seen, this film truly manages to get under the skin and unsettle. It portrays how lost and devastated the soldiers have become and is very spiritually faithful to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as the world is gradually stripped of its sanity the longer they follow the river.

Captain Willard, in particular, is wonderfully realized - his character's battle with despair is made more poignant and pronounced by the moments of hope. Martin Sheen's performance of a man struggle not to fall completely over the edge is astounding.

My one issue, however, centers around Kurtz. He works very well as a narrative device, as a reason for Willard to make his journey and as a representation of the depths to which Willard and others could sink. But as a character, he feels inauthentic, cliché, and very Hollywood-esque. Now, this may be a side effect of Apocalypse Now's ENORMOUS influence on subsequent films, but there's something about Kurtz that comes across as very rote and predictable.

Oddly enough, it feels like the film is trying too hard with him. Trying too hard to make him tragic and deep when scenes with Willard accomplished this so much better and with far greater emotional resonance.

As an example, Kurtz's line about how hypocritical it is that young men are taught to drop fire on people but can't write "fuck" on their planes because it's obscene seems artificial when compared to a scene, earlier on, of Willard killing a Vietnamese woman his fellow soldiers had wounded in a panic and now want to help. That scene perfectly illustrated Willard's disgust with the hypocrisy of war in a way that renders Kurtz's lines a pale shadow.

Despite my issues with Kurtz, though, he in no way hampers the fantastic achievement that is Willard's story.