As today's movies become safer and dumber, this revamped '70s classic only grows in stature, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated August 22, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Apocalypse Now Redux
Credit: Apocalypse Now Redux: Miramax Films
  • Movie

Why you should see ”Apocalypse Now Redux”

I well remember the first time I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant, foolhardy meditation on the Vietnam War. It was 1979, I had just moved to New York City, and the only seat left at the Ziegfeld Theater (one of the few remaining throwbacks to the grand movie palaces of yore) was in the front row. So when that chopper crossed from left to right in the opening shot, I had to turn my entire body to follow it.

While that may be the worst place to see a film, there’s no denying that most of ”Apocalypse Now” blew away all my received notions of how war can be portrayed onscreen. And my disappointment was thus all the keener when Martin Sheen and company finally got to the end of the river and found… an out-of-shape Buddha named Marlon Brando ranting softly in the darkness. You could practically feel the air leak out of the movie.

That hiss of deflation was what I heard most loudly when I thought about ”Apocalypse Now” in the years since: the sound of a muffed opportunity, of a filmmaker up the river, over his head, without a script — and of an actor whose self-absorption rivaled that of the character he was playing. So when I settled in my seat (further back this time) to watch Coppola’s reedited, enlarged ”Apocalypse Now Redux,” my hopes weren’t high.

I was blown away all over again. The difference, it seems, has less to do with the additional scenes Coppola has weaved into the film and more with the way movies, pop culture, and the director’s own career have changed in the intervening 22 years. Of the extra footage, only two sequences really change the film. The 20-minute French plantation sequence provides a ghostly historical longview to the mission of Captain Willard (Sheen), but it’s cursed with a terrible synthesizer music track that Coppola has built up from one of his composer father’s leftover soundtrack cues (the director should have sprung for a full orchestra; the result sounds like a backing track for a late-night cable softcore porn film). And there’s a surreal new scene toward the end — in which Brando, as Kurtz, reads back issues of Time magazine to an imprisoned Willard — that sounds dumb but plays beautifully; it establishes how ”the horror” was sold to the folks back home by the powers that be, and it allows Brando to be playful, alert, present — a character rather than an idea — for just about the only time in the picture.

The real reason ”Apocalypse Now Redux” seems so revelatory, however, is that high-risk filmmaking has become all but unheard of by now, the summer of ”Pearl Harbor.” ”Apocalypse” really was the last of its kind: the final artistically committed big movie of the 1970s American New Wave before the tsunami of post-”Star Wars” commercial pop inundated the marketplace. And it’s a shock to be reminded that a Hollywood film could be so ambitious, so angry, and so clear-headed ? even if woolly metaphor still finally takes over at the end and brings the whole impassioned, rickety edifice down.

The movies are a far safer place these days, to their discredit. That includes war movies: ”Saving Private Ryan” may have altered our perceptions of World War II (and paved the way for the new bonehead-isms of ”Pearl Harbor”) but not, as ”Apocalypse” does, our notions of history, human responsibility, even reality. Certainly Coppola’s career never recovered; the filmmaker has been reduced to genre journeyman and gentleman vintner, cranking out barely proficient pap like ”The Rainmaker” and ”Jack.”

In other words, ”Apocalypse Now” may not have looked so great from the front row of 1979 — but that’s only because we had no idea what was coming. Sitting further back changes everything.

Apocalypse Now

  • Movie
  • R
  • 153 minutes
  • Francis Ford Coppola