Bagman’s Millennial Perspective: Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is something I literally thought of watching for the past 10 or more years of my life since first hearing about it in high school. It was around a time where I would not be able to write about it in the way that I write today. Something about it felt alluring to me, compared to other movies. Most of it had to do with how people spoke about it, as well as the general discourse around it in society years after its ’79 release.
Francis Ford Coppola’s finest work since the Godfather.
I genuinely wanted to watch this not just because of how it was spoken about, but I was genuinely intrigued due to never seeing footage of it outside of its main context. YouTube clips, a link on social media, the whole nine yards. It wasn’t until this past week that I finally got to watch it and…..it’s okay. And yet, besides the tone, setting, and thematic elements at play, it was through its cinematography that made it seem weirdly relevant to me. Let me explain.
The whole plot of the movie is a simple one, with Martin Sheen’s character having an assignment in Saigon, Vietnam of having to find an ex-military official (played by Marlon Brando) and take him out in a specific part of the territories where he is hiding with Vietcong forces. Again, a really simple plot that is foreshadowed throughout about being more than a simple military assignment. You have your squad of characters, each with their very different backgrounds and characteristics, that join Sheen’s character. Some notable additions include a very young Laurence Fishburne (god damn, he was young in this) and Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist out in the field. I don’t know if there were particular love for certain characters at the time of its release, but Martin Sheen did a really outstanding job on staying mysterious, yet still likable as our protagonist. It wasn’t until him and Brando share screen time together that I was very impressed at what I was seeing. But the story beats was not the reason I overall liked the movie. Especially not with its very dated language use in regards to terms coined for Vietnamese troops, which only makes sense if you take this movie and place it back in the context of being released 6 years after the end of the Vietnam war. But its specifically through Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography that makes it really stand the test of time in my eyes.
A lot is said in regards to the shot of the U.S. army helicopters flying across the sky, with the rising, beating, red colored sun shining in the background, and it is a great shot. But every other shot is extremely better than that. Take the image above for instance. This is Sheen’s character attempting and later succeeding in killing Brando’s character. In this shot, it is completely still with no one present until Sheen’s head is slowly rising from the murky water. Camo and all, he scouts out the perimeter, seeing the people that Brando is with. Eating, dancing, and being happy. It is a shot meant to deliver to the audience the final blow of the anti-war messaging that was seen throughout the movie, as well as a reminder of humanity itself. Sheen doesn’t take out any of these people in this location, except for Brando. The last lines of this movie delivered by Brando for the character Kurtz: “The horror…the horror.” It is meant to showcase what his death means for him, as well as for humanity itself. Slight misgivings about the death scene aside, its the final shot of Sheen leaving via the boat, with this famous quote said in the background and later fading to black, that really spoke to me.
What make this movie seem very relevant in terms of pure film-making is how much the shots used in this are very much influenced throughout modern movie making, but done so much better here. The 70’s were a prime year for the work that Coppola expressed himself through, compared to somewhat recent work as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though I love Dracula for very, very different reasons, something about Now’s general look really vibes with me. A lot of what is said about this movie through my mere words can only add to the conversations already had, but I don’t see this movie for its machismo/masculinity so masculine tone it tries to set up in the beginning, nor how it sweeps that under the rug by the end of it. No, it’s the fact that in the beginning of the movie where the palm trees are being shown until the missile comes in to completely destroy the land with napalm, that this movie then ends in the most quiet way possible via Sheen leaving on the boat, truly makes this movie spectacular for me. It begins with expectations held for movie-goers at the get-go, up until the last 5 minutes of the movie, where those expectations are shattered.
I am really glad to have watched this movie this year without the noise of the nostalgic and pop culture groups making me feel peer pressured into watching. When people spoke of it when I was in high school, I never watched because I never had the time, nor was I emotionally stable enough to stay seated and watch a movie, with homework on the brain. I also didn’t have Netflix or a job yet, which I should add. I am glad to have done it now mostly because of being able to see it for what it is, and not knowing or remembering how it is conveyed to be remembered in popular culture. While there were quotes that I recognized due to seeing them elsewhere, it was hearing them in their original context that made me give a better appreciation for what Coppola and his team were trying to do. There can be a lot said about how violence is portrayed in this movie, or how what is first shown as a denigration of an entire group of people is then later showcased in a positive light by the end, but that has been talked about before. It is specifically how it begins and how it ends that makes it something I’ll think on for a really long time.
But damn, Laurence Fishburne is young as HELL in this.