Apocalypse Now Redux
dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Opens Fri Aug 24 at various theaters.

Famous Anecdote One: When Francis Ford Coppola introduced Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, he provided the oft-reprinted boast, "My film is not about Vietnam; my film is Vietnam." Though the statement was no doubt calculated to play to European critics and their demand for auteur arrogance, its intrinsic hyperbole summed up not only Coppola's grand ambitions as a filmmaker, but his human limitations, as well. It's clear that Coppola probably meant that his film captured the cataclysm of chaos, moral quandary, and epic violence that the Vietnam War represented. He probably meant that the production, famously beset by calamity and shadowed by the specter of futility as it spiraled over-budget and over-schedule, found some mimetic echo of American involvement in a conflict that ultimately had little meaning beyond what the military industrial complex (the director's metaphoric double) conferred on it. He definitely meant that Apocalypse Now was an important event, and to various extents, he was right on all counts.

But what Coppola probably didn't mean to say was that his film was long, grandiose, semi-coherent, and riddled with such artistic hubris that its director could actually stand on the world's stage and dare to compare a movie he'd made with one of recent history's most resonantly atrocious follies, and expect--and receive--a thunderous ovation. Though he didn't mean to say this, he did, and he was, to quote Martin Sheen's stony narration, "absolutely goddamn right."

With Apocalypse Now Redux, the esteemed filmmaker has unearthed some 45 minutes of new footage and rearranged the order of a few scenes in the original to accommodate it. Among the new bits are a few minutes more of Marlon Brando's vainglorious Kurtz (one scene of which--where Kurtz reads from Time magazine--is fantastic, vintage Brando), some nice moments of camaraderie among the men on the boat, and a long, gorgeous sequence set in a ghostly French plantation that serves to literalize, rather than enlarge on, the film's political context. While none of these new scenes are at all necessary, all but one are interesting extensions of thematic concerns running through the now familiar (if not memorized) original. The one that isn't--an encounter between Willard's companions and the Playboy bunnies--is so repugnant on every level (though particularly in its portrayal of the women themselves) as to be morally indefensible. It exposes the filmmaker's ugliness far more than the time's; Coppola shouldn't have included this footage, he should've terminated it with extreme prejudice.

That said, Apocalypse Now has always been a collision of great and godawful, a film that delivers and fails on so many levels simultaneously that it comprises several films at once. Specifically because of this epic disjunction, it has also always been one of my favorite movies, and the prospect of seeing Coppola's new pass at its construction (after probably 30 viewings of the original) was irresistible. Some people balk when artists unabandon their old material; respectable voices have called it a cop-out to release director's cuts. But to a fan, seeing Redux is akin to hearing the Beatles' Anthology: You have to, if only out of curiosity. And with the refurbishment and digital remastering of Walter Murch's inestimably powerful sound design, you really have to, in a great theater, right now, today. What Redux amounts to is less a director's cut than a revisitation of a work so massive in scope as to have been heretofore not only unfinished, but unfinishable.

The new footage rearranges and sometimes enlarges the movie, but doesn't ultimately change it much. It's still a wash of insight and obviousness, still a collage of acting styles and a showcase for some of the best and worst performances imaginable, still a fervid orgy of light and color and sound, still a barrage of indelible moments that suggest, but do not truly add up to, their climax. The structure, always episodic and relentlessly digressive, becomes at best a bit more poetic; the scenes stack up like stanzas in T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (a source as central to the film's conception as Conrad's Heart of Darkness), each a variation on the dominant refrain: War defines the dual nature of man.

As Willard navigates the river, the men, and the insanity of his surroundings, he becomes Kurtz; as the Wagnerian helicopters storm the beach, we become complicit in the erotic attraction of war, and so forth. This was all true enough in the original, but Redux, weighing in at 196 minutes, forsakes the momentum of the journey upriver for an unwieldy, often undeserved meditative heft. Coppola calls on all the philosophical primacy of jungles, rivers, and guns to compensate for his failure to answer the question--returning to Eliot (and a different poem): Will the center hold?

As if the theme of man's duality were insufficiently stated throughout, Coppola has his characters state it beyond all mistaking, during the hallucinatory plantation scene: "Zere are two of you," the nude Frenchwoman says to Willard. "Don't you see? One zat keels and one zat loves." But there is another duality at work here: There are two Francis Ford Coppolas, too. One strives to make a film of impregnable moral and artistic truth--the final grand statement about Man in War--and one wants to put butts in theater seats, a huckster showman of royal proportions.

It's this duality that both plagues and preserves Apocalypse Now as a cultural touchstone, and a film not about Vietnam, nor war, but about itself. Its finest and most famous exemplar is "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," a line delivered by Robert Duvall, in one of the greatest film performances of all time, with such heroic sincerity and irony that it has outstripped "an offer he can't refuse" and even "may the force be with you" as the defining phrase of '70s movie pop culture. With that speech, Duvall and Coppola form the locus of a transcendent collision of Hollywood and Truth.

Much earlier in the film, however, in a scene celebrated for its honesty, a much subtler collision occurs. When Martin Sheen's Willard drunkenly smashes his hotel mirror and tumbles naked and bleeding across the bed, there's a tiny moment just before the cut where you see Sheen, in an absolute paroxysm of tears, terror, and real blood, stop to cover his genitals with a bed sheet. Though the scene and Sheen's performance remain harrowing, the cover-up strikes me every single time I see the film. It's not so much a stumble (the action is too minuscule, and even justifiable) as it is a reminder--the first of many--of the movie, of the moviemaker, amid all the Truth being hurled our way. As committed as Sheen is to Coppola's gaze, he flinches when that gaze turns to his dick--after all that? The same thing happens during the battle sequences, when easy ironies like Kilgore's response to the Viet Cong fighting back ("fucking savages") are employed as winking punch lines to the "joke" of the dizzying carnage that fills the screen. So many indictments are handed down throughout the course of the film that you can't help detecting the director's inability to settle on a culprit.

At the time of Apocalypse Now, Coppola's significance in the world of popular entertainment was vaunted--he was one of those rare artists whose work is anticipated by the masses as a kind of salvation (or at least a surprise), a redefiner of the art form he practiced, as well as a proven crowd pleaser. In the '70s it was conceivable that a movie director could bear the same cultural cachet as a rock star; it was perfectly fitting for Coppola's face to be seen on the cover of both Time and Rolling Stone. (It's also fitting, then, that his closest contemporary equivalent is probably Radiohead... multiplied by 20.) He embraced the attendant artistic liberty like a birthright, and embarked upon a project of such enormous reach that it broke and bankrupted him before going on to redeem him and restore his fortune en route to its justifiable place in the pantheon. It was in this spirit of colossal ambition and colossal arrogance that Coppola went back to the eternal drawing board, to make another attempt at resolving his unfinishable symphony. "Someday this war's gonna end," says Kilgore at the close of his famous speech. I wouldn't be so sure.

Famous Anecdote Two: The production had stretched on for so many years that when young Sofia Coppola was asked what her father did for a living, she replied, "He makes Apocalypse Now."

Here it is 22 years later and Francis Ford Coppola's still making it.