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From Under A Rock: Apocalypse Now

April 16, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Apocalypse Now  


This is Aaron starting here, and this is a really interesting pick for us. Originally, Michael had this as a pick way down the road, assuming he’d watch it by then. As it turns out, I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a while, and when he couldn’t work it into his schedule, I decided I was going to work it into mine. So what happened here is another Rocky situation, where both of us are watching a movie for the first time. And seriously, what a movie to try and tackle.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael let Aaron in on the right one with Let the Right One In. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock by showing him the hell of war in Apocalpyse Now.

Apocalypse Now
Released: August 15th, 1979
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: John Milius & Francis Ford Coppola
Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard
Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz
Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore
Laurence Fishburne as Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller
Harrison Ford as Colonel G. Lucas

Aaron Hubbard: So here’s a fun story about Apocalypse Now. My father and I work in buildings that are less than a mile apart, so we’ve often made trips to and from work, and one subject that’s come up repeatedly is movies and what we enjoy or appreciate. This is his favorite movie of all time, and he’d often talk about how it was impossible for someone to understand the film without studying Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which serves as the narrative structure and inspiration for the film. So, with all due respect, I’m now going to break that rule and try to figure out this insane, beautiful, terrifying masterpiece without reading Heart of Darkness. Sorry, Dad.

Michael Ornelas: I actually did study Heart of Darkness in high school, but I don’t know if that prepped me for this film, and I say that because, personally, the impact of film is much more palpable to me since I need the visual experience to highlight what I should be feeling. To put it simply: this movie was a horrifying look at war and felt very real. I’ve never been at war but this scared me more than any movie on the subject has before. It was also a masterpiece of filmmaking, and I perversely enjoyed every moment I was watching it.
Aaron: War films are an interesting genre, because they raise political and ethical questions by their very nature. I don’t know many people who don’t have a firm stance on whether war is a good thing or not, so your opinions can strongly inform how you process a war film. I’ve seen it argued that no film can truly be anti-war, because film itself romanticizes whatever its subject matter is. It’s impossible to present war as being hell when it looks so “cool”, the argument goes. I tend to side with Francis Ford Coppola on this one; all war films end up being anti-war films because they do depict the horrors of war and cause us to ask if it’s worth it or not. But since they are often so divisive among audiences for reasons outside the actual quality of the film (looking at you American Sniper), I tend to avoid the genre unless there is a very compelling artistic reason not to. And while Apocalypse Now is a movie about war (in general) and the Vietnam War specifically, it’s also more than that. It’s an epic adventure, with direct parallels to Homer’s Odyssey and a more mythic, almost supernatural tone than most war films would ever take. It’s transcendent.

Michael: I honestly don’t know of a war movie that comes across as fully “pro-war” — even the ones that don’t necessarily show the horrors of it as much as the triumphs (such as Zero Dark Thirty). Some portray the necessity of it, but we still always see atrocities represented in visceral ways. This film never really shows the necessity of war (a fact that I think is highlighted by the choice to represent the Vietnam War specifically, as American involvement in that war is often argued to be unjustified). But at the heart of this commentary is a movie. And that’s how we’re reviewing it. I believe that this is cinematic perfection, from Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s sublime performances, to breathtaking camerawork, and a story that never wavers. I was captivated from start to finish and went on an emotional ride that never really had highs, just lows and lowers.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. I think it was about the point where the people who were floating in the water chasing after the boat where I realized that this is not a typical war film. The story isn’t about war being a figurative hell, it’s about telling a story about people going into literal Hell on Earth. This wasn’t going to end in some big shoot out with a military target, or some carefully executed mission. This was one men on a collision course with a man who may as well have been Satan himself. And that’s when I fell in love with the film for more than aesthetic and acting reasons. This movie is broad, it’s bold, it’s unwavering, and it’s incredible.
Kurtz' Compound
Michael: There was a lot of weight on Brando’s shoulders to deliver a performance that felt grounded while playing a character type very few people ever personally encounter in life. I think he gave a better performance here than he did in The Godfather, and that’s not a statement I make lightly. The idea that a soldier went AWOL and found people to worship him is pretty out-there, but once we arrived in the third act, it was my favorite aspect of the film. Seeing Martin Sheen go mentally toe-to-toe with him felt just as brutal as the physical war we had been watching for the previous two acts. In the end, it was a mind game but violence put an end to it. Does that symbolize the necessity of war? I’m not sure. Sheen was also simply carrying out a mission to “terminate with extreme prejudice” so I think that even more speaks to the fact that this is a purely anti-war film.

Aaron: This is the part of the story where Apocalypse Now is most similar to Heart of Darkness, literally transporting the antagonist of that film from one setting into another. Marlon Brando has a very short amount of screen time, but the film wisely builds him up as a larger-than-life character. And Brando is one of the few actors you could ever cast in this role, as his screen presence, acting ability, and star power allow him to be this living God because… well, that’s not too far off from his reputation among filmgoers. Brando is great, Martin Sheen is incredible, and that last scene in the movie was just about the most perfect finale I think I’ve ever seen. Visually stunning, almost silent, completely unhinged… It’s a raw visual and emotional representation of how war has transformed these men. They are just as savage and violent as they think their enemies (or servants are). All it took was the opportunity to get there.

Michael: I also love the ending because of the cyclical nature it represents: Sheen toppled Brando, and now the people worship him. Is he going to stick around as their new God, or was his departure representative of the cycle being broken? It’s not set in stone, but it’s interesting to think about both outcomes. We certainly saw instances of Sheen becoming unglued (mainly when he shoots the woman on the boat who was still alive after they shot it up as she went to protect her puppy), but I like to think that by the end, he keeps his resolve and his sanity. But thematically, I don’t know if that fits this movie though, and that’s tragic.
A Visual Masterpiece
Aaron: Apocalypse Now is obviously more than just a visual masterpiece, but it’s almost impossible to overstate what a gorgeous-looking film this is. Not necessarily “pretty”, although the Vietnam setting has its fair share of scenic landscape shots. But things like the presence of fog of all colors (the fog of war), vicious and unadulterated violence, and the extremely sweaty Martin Sheen all helped to create this hostile atmosphere that made me feel trapped and sucked in. I couldn’t look away, even during some of the most soul-crushing moments. As I alluded to earlier, the finale of this film is almost entirely a visual narrative, with Sheen’s character becoming a figurative shadow that we can only see when lightning strikes. It’s also hard to imagine this looking better if it was made today.

Michael: Coppola certainly maximized his visual resources and I completely agree — this is a cinematic masterpiece. It’s such a testament to the cinematographer that he was able to make beauty from the dreary. Shot composition works in this movie’s favor because the frame tells stories just as much as the dialogue does. That’s an artform that almost feels dated because technology has allowed us to streamline the moviemaking process that, sadly, artistry gets left behind all-too-often. We still do have visual filmmakers (Tarantino stands out among the modern ones), but they are fewer and further between. That said, I’m not one of those guys who misses the “good ol’ days” because I think the good movies are incredible these days…but there’s a lot of crap as well.

Aaron: I’m a firm believer that anything can be used well as long as people are willing to work hard at it. But I also believe in the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”; if you put somebody who is driven in a tough spot, many of them find a way to create a solution. And I do think movies are just a bit too easy to make these days. I think it’s also cool that Coppola got something as dark and intimate as the finale, and something as exciting and grand as the “Flight of the Valkyries” scene in the same movie and have them make perfect sense.

Michael: Francis Ford Coppola has quite a few masterful works and this is one of the best. I prefer the first two Godfather films personally, but those, along with this, all get the highest of praise from me. War movies usually don’t suck me in, but this one did. And on top of a captivating story arc with Martin Sheen, it was so magnificently captured on film. This is a work of art and can’t get anything below a perfect rating.


Aaron: Man, I’m at a loss for words about this one. Obviously it’s fresh in my mind and I’m going to have to check out some of my longstanding favorites first, but this film is immediately among the elite films I’ve ever seen. I was always engaged, often in awe, and went on an emotional journey that I’ll never forget. If there are flaws to be found, they are so overwhelmed by the film’s strengths that they don’t really matter. This gets the highest recommendation I can possibly give. If you have not seen this film, do so now.


Michael: Yet we waited 27 and 26 years respectively to get to this. In a way, I’m glad, because I feel I’m much more appreciative of good films these days…but man. What did we wait for??

Aaron: Yeah, well. Just wait ’til our readers find out I haven’t seen Jaws or Die Hard yet.

Michael: I mean, I guess that’s right now.

Who was better? Martin Sheen or Marlon Brando?

Next week:

Michael: If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that my all-time favorite movie is Alien, but the sequel’s pretty damn amazing as well. So let’s watch that in honor of 20th Century Fox declaring April 26th “Alien Day” (chosen because 4/26 relates to LV-426, the moon on which the Engineer ship containing the xenomorph eggs crash-landed)
Aaron: Well, Alien ended up being one of my favorite movies as well, so I’m definitely invested in checking out the sequel. I’ve heard that it’s a very different movie, but really great in it’s own right. So I am definitely looking forward to checking it out. In fact, you could say my chest is about to burst from anticipation.

Michael: I could say that, but I won’t…

So which is better: Alien or Aliens?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now

Michael’s Spin on Things is a comedic YouTube product review parody channel in which Michael Ornelas will review ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in accordance to the criteria provided by the spin of a wheel.

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As the new Spider-Man looks to make his debut in Captain America: Civil War, I take a look at what Peter Parker means to the Marvel brand in my latest column Welcome Home, Spider-Man.

The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Francis Ford Coppola moves the story of Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War and creates a timeless masterpiece that is one of the best movies we have reviewed for this column. Stunning visuals presentation, rich themes, and a knockout cast spanning generations make Apocalypse Now an all-time classic war film. Please don't wait as long as we did to check it out.