'Apocalypse Now: Final Cut': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Francis Ford Coppola; Vittorio Storaro
A must-see theatrical experience, but the first cut remains the one worth preserving.
8/15/2019

Francis Ford Coppola scales back the 2001 'Redux' version of his masterpiece, with state-of-the-art sound and image.

Like his peers George Lucas and (to a lesser extent) Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola has been reluctant to close the book on the films that made him famous. But while the latter directors' digital revisions to Star Wars and E.T. were scorned by many, Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux was treated respectfully by critics and audiences upon its 2001 release. Some observers whispered about problematic additions, but many largely accepted the director's justification: Commercial concerns kept him from making the 1979 masterwork as strange as he wanted it to be; decades later, he wanted to show us what he had cut out.

Now, in what feels like revisionism, the master explains that Redux was not meant to be a definitive version. It was simply a chance to "put everything back," despite realizing that 202 minutes was longer than the movie really needed to be. He has gone back again, keeping much of what Redux added but nip-and-tucking throughout: His 183-minute Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (a half-hour longer than the 1979 version) is meant to be "just right," in the director's Goldilocks estimation. It's also a chance to apply present-day tech advances to the film, using Dolby Vision and Atmos to make it as viscerally affecting as possible.

That last item is the most compelling. Final Cut will be screened theatrically Aug. 15 (before an Aug. 27 home video release) and it demands to be seen there, both by longtime admirers and by young viewers lucky enough to have their first viewing be in a theater. This is an overwhelming sensory experience, with deep colors and nuanced sound amplifying the film's hypnotic effect. The spell is still broken by the controversial "French plantation" sequence, a controversial addition in Redux that remains here. (The words "kill your darlings" come to mind.) Even so, this is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.

One note of caution: Moviegoers who've accepted the hype and bought a ticket may be puzzled by the film's opening shot, which looks far from high-def. For younger viewers, it may well be the grainiest image they've ever seen — a row of palm trees against a midday sky, about to be turned hellish to the tune of The Doors' "The End." Celluloid shots containing dissolves are harder to restore than ordinary ones, and this is one of film history's most famous superimpositions — images of napalm-dropping helicopters overlapping with both a motel-room ceiling fan and the upside-down face of Martin Sheen's Captain Willard, the damaged man whose memory ties the two things together. Rest assured that nearly nothing else in the film is this grainy.

Little needs to be said about the pic's plot, in which Willard is tasked with traveling upriver through Vietnam to assassinate a colonel (Marlon Brando's demented Kurtz) whose behavior has become "confused...unsound." Willard's superiors brief him on Kurtz's mental breakdown at the outset, but he explores the colonel's biography throughout the film, reading files as he travels through the environment that turned a hero into a madman. (The movie's long, captivating voiceover passages were written by Michael Herr, who had covered the Vietnam War for Esquire.)

Viewers who can step back from the familiarity of this journey — the anticipation of famous quotes about napalm and surfing; the dread of horrors to come — may marvel at the new ways Coppola and company found to dramatize war's dehumanizing effect. Sometimes, as with a Cavalry officer who remains erect and cheerful while others cower from mortar fire, even holding onto oneself is a form of insanity. More often here, the attempt to dodge bullets while satisfying ordinary human desires changes men in stranger ways.

Inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the pic is relentless in its tethering of geographical progress and psychological descent — until Willard and his companions are stopped by a family of forgotten French colonialists. Then, over an endless-feeling dinner, the movie talks and talks at us, thick-accented men arguing about history and politics while a beautiful widow makes eyes at Willard. The plantation sequence completely stops the film, and it's hard to imagine an argument that would adequately defend it.

Those who share this view will be glad to know that the home video package also contains (in addition to Redux and the essential documentary Hearts of Darkness) the theatrical cut of the film, which reportedly has been restored from the original negative. That is the movie many of us would prefer to see on a giant screen with a seat-rattling sound system. But even with an escargot detour, a refreshed Apocalypse Now is a life-altering voyage.

Production company: Zoetrope Studios
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forest, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, G.D. Spradlin
Director-producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriters: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Dean Tavoularis
Editors: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald B. Greenberg, Walter Murch
Composers: Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola
Casting directors: Terry Liebling, Vic Ramos
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Anniversary Screenings)

Rated R, 183 minutes