Movies for the Resistance: Apocalypse Now

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forest, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall and Dennis Hopper
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 153 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1979


Let’s talk crazy for a bit.

The White House held a master class on the subject last week, revealing a level of chaos that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen in the federal government before. Two Trump speeches – the kind of events that your average 4th grader couldn’t fuck up – drew rebukes from both the Boy Scouts of America and the International Association of Chiefs of Police; walking self-parody Anthony Scaramucci arrived to oversee the ouster of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus amid an expletive laden series of interviews that need to be heard to be believed (before his own hasty demise just yesterday); human shame barometer Jeff Sessions refused to step down despite the constant passive-aggressive jabs from a president known for the phrase “you’re fired;” Trump banned transgenders from serving in the military without actually consulting, you know, the military; and Trumpcare endured yet another – perhaps final – humiliating defeat at a midnight Senate vote that saw one of Trump’s longtime sputtering doormats John McCain finally stick the knife in and twist.

In five days, all of this happened. Five. Days. And that before yesterday’s late inning bombshell that 45 had his tiny little fists deep in his son’s meeting with the Russia.

Regardless of the spin on either side, it’s clear that we’ve entered a “Hail Eris!” phase of the proceedings. The White House is officially eating its own, the GOP agenda is in tatters despite unified control of the government, and every day brings a new self-inflicted wound that makes you wonder how much blood remains in the body. Even hard-core Trumpkins seemed shaken by the level of insanity on display: the jaw-dropping shitstorm of cruel playground bullying consuming the highest office in the land.

No one knows what’s going to happen next, but you honestly wonder how much longer it can go on.

I try to be as pertinent as possible with the choices for this column, and given the rapid developments in this bewildering, terrifying era, that can often be a game-day decision. In light of what we’ve just seen, the only film that seems to match the current mood is Apocalypse Now: a study in the depths of madness and the seemingly straightforward path that rational men take to get there.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had defied filmmakers’ attempts to adapt it for decades when Francis Ford Coppola tackled it as a metaphor for Vietnam. It almost broke him, and the shoot itself has become the stuff of horrified legend. (Check out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse for an in-depth look.) But in the process, he created an indelible statement on the lunacy of war, in part because he stepped into the abyss himself.

Like Conrad’s novel, the movie charts that downward spiral step by agonizing step. It starts with basic dysfunction: intense, perhaps, but still something we think we have a handle on. A troubled soldier (Martin Sheen) is handed inexplicable orders to assassinate a Green Beret Colonel (Marlon Brando) gone rogue deep in the jungle. Add to that indulgence in base human appetites: Playboy bunnies clinging to choppers as sex-crazed servicemen storm the tarmac; an Air Cav unit so eager for distraction that they will assault a VC stronghold just to get a good surfing spot; outposts left devoid of leadership and firing madly at an enemy that may or may not exist; and Sheen’s Cpt. Willard watching his escort get shot out from under him while the survivors slowly exit our reality.

All of this takes place before we reach Willard’s destination. It’s the prep work: the slow acclimation to a void that might just kill us if we enter it cold. Things start out bad, but we think we’re on top of it. It gets worse and we hold on, hoping to see an uptick. The scramble becomes a slide and we rush just to stay in front of the storm. Then one day we wake up and someone’s explaining to us why all those heads are on pikes.

Along the way, Willard wonders how bad Kurtz could be to surpass what he has seen. He continues down the path in part because he must, but also because of perverse curiosity: the need to see how bad it can get and what a rational person might do in such circumstances. His instincts share similarities with Trump’s appeal: the reality show dumpster fire, hypnotic in its intensity, that demands we continue watching even though as know how much damage it’s causing.

It’s easy to paint Trump as Kurtz. Not the good-man-gone-bad stuff, because there was likely nothing in 45’s soul to salvage, but certainly the endgame: a fat corpulent spider squatting in his web and raving about the conspiracies of “weaker” foes while his followers commit atrocity after atrocity in his name.

He even has a gaggle of media court jesters like Dennis Hopper’s drug-addled “journalist.” Spicer, Conway, Scaramucci, Sanders… that clown car may never empty, and true to form, we can always count on their absurd rationales to cover up the unthinkable. They – and the media watchdogs they face – have long since been swallowed up by the story they’re trying to shape. They enable the sins of their subject, and lose their footing in the process. It’s a long way down.

Indeed, the media intrudes into Apocalypse Now in quietly disturbing ways, starting with Coppola’s cameo as a frantic journalist admonishing the soldiers to ignore him. Distractions abound as the trip continues, from the playmates who trigger a riot to the drugs coursing through the crew’s veins. The whole boat, it seems, feels like hapless observers rather than participants: watching the blood-soaked freak show pass them by and thinking they’re somehow immune from it. They aren’t, of course (as their dwindling numbers make clear), but the illusion is powerful and seductive until the very end.

And like the rest of Willard’s journey, it’s horrifyingly necessary. He couldn’t get there without those steps, without understanding just how bottomless our own irrationality can become. Yet to turn away would be unthinkable. Willard has a moral imperative to end this, even though his hands (and those of his masters) are bloody too. He needs to kill Kurtz, if for no other reason than to prove that a path leads out of it: that you can absorb the totality of it all, and come back to a place where reason and morality still hold sway.

That’s our mission as much is it is his, and to pretend it isn’t happening is to join the insanity. And yet we NEED to join it if we hope to escape it. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own,” Willard’s voiceover explains. “And if his story is really a confession… then so is mine.”  Like it or not, Trump IS America. The worst parts of it – the smug, self-obsessed snake-oil salesmen who started believing their own bullshit – but America nonetheless. And regardless of how his presidency ends, we’ll need to grapple with that reality if we hope to avoid such ghastly mistakes in the future.

That’s the heart of darkness: the road we need to travel to understand what happened. And while I continue to believe that we’ll emerge a better nation when this is over, the scars of that journey are going to stay with us – all of us – until we die.

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