Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019)
Runtime: 3 hours 3 minutes
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Marlon Brando
This August saw a momentary theatrical-IMAX re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now, this time with a new cut from the legendary director aptly subtitled the Final Cut. Coming in at 183 minutes (roughly 10 minutes shorter than Redux and 30 minutes longer than the original edit), the Final Cut offers an renewed opportunity to delve back into the Heart of Darkness with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he tracks down the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in wartime Vietnam. The cultural context of the Vietnam War as represented in the film, itself a translation of the Belgian-colonial context of Joseph Conrad’s source novella, has always been emblematic of an inherent irrationality of war and ideological terror. The state of the world has not improved since 1979; the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report expects global food shortages and mass poverty by 2030, necessitating a complete and total diversion from current social, political, and economic function. Neoliberalism, and its various past incarnations, has effectively dropped us in a dialectic hell from which there is no comfortable escape – a tantamount hell to the one Captain Willard finds himself over the course of his surreal mission.
The plot goes, Captain Benjamin L. Willard is tasked by ranked U.S. Army officials with tracking down and assassinating the brilliant Colonel William E. Kurtz, a decorated Special Forces operative driven to insanity by the horrors witnessed in war, who’s since formed his own rogue outfit out of Cambodia. The idea of someone as tactically intelligent and capable as Kurtz operating out in the field, outside of America’s interests deeply disturbs the U.S. Army, the precise reason why being as obvious as it is illusive. Robert Duvall’s iconic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (“Charlie don’t surf!”) is a clear indicator the U.S. government has zero qualms with sadistic warfare from its personnel, as long as agents extend the symbolic olive branch postmortem. Kurtz’s offense cuts deeper than cruelty, it violates the number one rule of the reality construction project that is the bureaucratic institution: confronting the Lie at its heart.
If Apocalypse Now is about anything, it’s the moral contradiction serving as the basis, the pretense for countless acts of cruelty inflicted in the contrived arena of war. Willard and company stop a Vietnamese supply boat to search for contraband presumed to aid “Charlie.” He advises they dismiss the small boat, letting it pass without incident, but the crew insists. As expected, the routine procedure goes horribly awry when Mr. “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne), with the itchy trigger finger, unloads the boat-mounted machine gun into the unarmed transport. Post-slaughter, they find a smuggled puppy hidden away in a basket – clearly not worth killing anyone over. One of the wounded, a Vietnamese woman who was trying to protect said puppy, doesn’t die right off. The boat captain, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) demands they bring her abroad to take her back to base for medical assistance. Willard’s seen enough; he walks over to the two soldiers attempting to carry her aboard and mercy shoots her point blank, to everyone else’s shock. Martin Sheen’s brooding voice over monologues his growing resentment for such “lies.” Later on when we finally meet Colonel Kurtz, he recalls a similar realization precipitating his own existential unraveling: the two really aren’t so different.
We’ve learned nothing from the great mistake that was the Vietnam War – America can hardly even acknowledge it lost the war. The cultural legacy of the war, Reaganomics of the 80s onward, along with entrenched nationalistic antagonism with the Soviet Union up till the 90s, has only amplified the moral insanity of our modern world. Just as Willard “sees no method at all” to Kurtz’s nightmarish haven of death, there’s nothing rational about the way Western-capitalist idealism has rendered us impotent in preventing our own destruction by our own hand, but that’s expected in any toy democracy where the real power is safeguarded by a paywall rather than its people. What’s left is fertile ground for “horror and moral terror.” The epidemic of white supremacist terrorism, openly encouraged by our own government officials, conveniently disavowed after the fact is nothing if not horror and moral terror explicitly defining our dour epoch.
In the film’s final sequence, Captain Willard **spoilers** strikes down Kurtz in dramatic fashion, yet he faces on final challenge after he completes his mission. Kurtz’s followers express no hard feelings for their leader’s execution. They bow to Willard as he descends the haunted temple lair, a clear gesture of willing servitude and a chance for Willard to succeed Kurtz as agent of “horror and moral terror.” The fact that anyone can rationally come to the existential conclusions Kurtz does from a dialectic logic of domination and cruelty, is a clear sign of cultural ruin. To see this manufactured reality for what it is, brutal workings and all, and no reasonable power to change it, is true doom. The apocalypse is here, not in the wake of raining fire, but an accepted propensity for blind insanity masquerading as righteous participation.