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Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

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(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)

The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right.   Let me count the ways

It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.

It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.

It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school.  When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river.  Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation.  Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.

Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.

It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there.  Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.

Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.

The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.

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American Sniper is a spellbinding war film. Clint Eastwood conveys the simplicity of patriotism, the horror of war and its psychological toll when it is concluded, and the ambiguity of heroism, all encapsulated in a riveting re-creation of combat during the second Iraq War.  Bradley Cooper is the perfect vessel for Eastwood’s tale. As sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper projects a forthright assuredness that, as he is tested, wears down, not in the expected emotional breakdown or the hackneyed apologia and rejection of values, but physically, in the narrowing of his eyes, the long stare, the suspicion with which he greets even the most unthreatening of domestic events. It’s a haunting, restrained performance, completely at odds with Cooper’s manic turns in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and beautifully in tune with Eastwood’s anti-war, yet very much a war movie (the combat sequences are expert; in particular, a closing battle that Eastwood makes cogent and gripping even though the combatants are enveloped in a sand storm).

The picture is one of the most successful of the year, predictably eliciting a tired cultural debate as to its politics and its accuracy. The film’s political offense can be found in its marrow. There is no defense of the Iraq War.  There is no suggestion that the endeavor was worthy or advisable and the events depicted suggest otherwise.  Kyle’s own brother, while shipping out, looks hollow, telling Kyle “fuck this place” and Kyle’s first kills are regrettably a child and his mother. Ty Burr’s conclusion that it is a “tragedy in which American certainty comes to grief against the rocks of the real world, and it views its central figure as a decent man doing indecent things for what he keeps telling himself is a greater good” is perfectly defensible.

But Kyle is a Texan from a churchgoing family. His father teaches him to hunt and to be violent in defense of those who are weaker. Kyle is called to duty by the terrorism of the 90s and beyond, and he builds the rapport of the soldier with his fellow Seals, with all the machismo, camaraderie and xenophobia that entails. He is a patriot, unyielding in his views toward his country and his fellow soldiers. And that is one noxious stew for certain quarters. Hence the sniggering of Seth Rogen, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher, comfortable in their condescension and elevated station. When Howard Dean (who did his Vietnam tour in the snows of Killington) attributed the film’s success to anger and the Tea Party, he conveyed two certainties: he had not seen the film but he had read and heard a lot about it from like minded folk.  When dolts aren’t taking potshots at the culture Eastwood presents, others decry its lack of context, nothing more than the idiocy directed at Zero Dark Thirty, which ostensibly failed because it omitted the Surgeon General’s warning, “Torture is bad and no valuable intel ever came from it.”

The other controversy has centered on the picture’s accuracy. In a year when Selma took flak for creation of an LBJ-Hoover conspiracy to get Martin Luther King, it’s fair to expose American Sniper to some rigor. But as Slate‘s Courtney Duckworth points out, while Kyle may have been a fabulist in other areas of his life (Kyle, who embraced celebrity, said he killed two carjackers in Texas, sniped looters during Hurricane Katrina, and punched Jesse Ventura in the face), “more than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life.” Generally, what Eastwood filmed was true to Kyle’s memoir, though that truth was often subject to standard massaging and embellishment (a cell phone call to his wife mid combat, creation of one bad guy and expanded dramatization of another).  The truth is incredible enough:  over 250 kills, and survival of four tours, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, six IED attacks and numerous surgeries.

Instead of training in on the accuracy of what Eastwood depicts, there seems to be an expectation that Kyle as blowhard should have been plumbed.  I’m not sure how that would have worked thematically, and it could really only be justified as a caution about the wartime events he wrote about.  I have not read anything that suggests Kyle’s telling of that part of his life is assailable, so it would be like injecting JFK’s serial adultery into a Cuban Missile Crisis flick – enjoyable for those prone to  dislike Kennedy but otherwise awkward and misplaced.

A traditional war picture depicting the harrowing experiences of an American tank unit at the close of World War II, this white-knuckle drama alternates between the well-trodden verisimilitude of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and the cynical outlook of The Thin Red Line and Flags of Our Fathers. Brad Pitt commands a tank crew that includes Shia LaBeouf (the religious gunner), Jon Bernthal (the profane Southerner), Michael Pena (the sly Mexican) and Logan Lerman (the baby-faced clerk/typist accidentally assigned to the unit). Lerman undergoes a baptism by fire, as Pitt attempts to de-sensitize him on the fly in an effort to make him more effective. This includes light beatings, a few sermons and, eventually, much worse. That pretty much does the trick, and the rest of the film consists of the unit taking on two missions, both of which are visually audacious and nerve-wracking. In particular, the battle between three under-matched Sherman tanks and a Tiger tank is a thing of beauty.

Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) occasionally veers into the hackneyed, but the actors elevate the material with a cohesion that seems genuine. They actually feel like a unit cramped together for three years, especially when they engage in everyday banter, such as “best job I ever had.” Ayer also writes a haunting scene where Pitt and Lerman spend a quiet meal with two German women, only to have the rest of the crew bluster in angrily to join them, a reminder of their grotesque existence.

One the downside, Steven Price’s score is bizarre and bombastic, better suited to a Lord of the Rings pic than a grim war film.  The final battle scene is also a bit too protracted and incredible, at odds with the grimy realism of what preceded it.

This is a solid picture and one I was surprised was made (the budget was over $60 million but at last count, it had grossed over $80 million domestic and over $200 million total).  Apparently, there’s an audience for this kind of story (unless Pitt still has that kind of box office juice).

Not just historically inaccurate, but outright hostile to the facts, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart matches its puerile fantasy with cheezy romance, splatterfest battle scenes, and cartoonish characters (Patrick McGoohan plays King Edward Longshanks as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Peter Hanley plays his son as if auditioning for La Cage Aux Folles). Then, there is the James Horner score that brings you back to the ye olde highlands of Busch Gardens. Naturally, like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner before him, the Academy honored an actor turned director with an undeserved Best Picture statuette. But Ordinary People and Dances with Wolves are merely pedestrian. Braveheart is bad through and through and often, excruciatingly so.

On the plus side, when you decide to rewrite history, you might as well give William Wallace a haircut straight out of Duran Duran.

Hungry like the wolf for FREEEEEDOOOMMMMM!!!!!”

Ridley Scott’s depiction of The Battle of Mogadishu communicates the warrior culture, the confusion of urban battle, the domino effect of error therein, and the strain on its combatants. In 1993, after upwards of 300,000 Somalis perished through civil war-induced starvation, the U.S. sat on the ground in Somalia to support U.N. humanitarian efforts while attempting to capture the warlord Aidid. The movie recreates a mission to capture some of the warlord’s top lieutenants, a mission that unravels after two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down in the city and the goal of quick extraction transforms into a desperate rescue to the crash sites as the city inflames.

The film is astonishing in several respects. The mission itself is complicated, and in support, there are four squads (“chalks”), of which Josh Hartnett commands one, with all four being under the direction of Jason Isaacs; a motorized convoy led by Tom Sizemore; numerous helicopters, including two piloted by Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven shot down by RPGs; a single helicopter acting as spotter for all action on the ground (that spotter being Zeljko Ivanek); and a command center helmed by Sam Shepard. Included is this vast ensemble cast is Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Iaon Gruffud, Orlando Bloom, Hugh Dancy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, and Ty Burrell (it is a testament to the vagaries of a Hollywood that a post-Pearl Harbor Hartnett got his name above the title during the closing credits). Despite all of these moving parts in the midst of a confusing, hellish street-by-street battle, the viewer is never confused. You know who you are looking at, why they are there, and what has gone wrong with the objective at all times. Lesser directors can be flummoxed by a minor shoot-out in a western town.

The film won Oscars for sound editing and sound mixing. Given the melee, changes in topography and vantage point, it is nothing less than aural masterpiece.

Some critics took Scott to task for reducing the Somalis to props and/or cannon fodder. Much of that, however, is unavoidable given the disparity in firepower and casualties (18 American dead and 80 wounded to an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 Somali casualties) and the focus of the Mark Bowden book upon which the flick is based (the Somali view is barely represented and boiled down to a bromide in the film – “there will always be war . . . killing is negotiation”).

If there is a flaw, it is in Scott’s need for a message.  There is no political angle, and the aftermath is equivocal. On a broader scale, some might say we should never be in such a place, others might disagree but insist upon a defined goal, and still others decry the abrupt withdrawal after the battle as having elevated optics over lives (Osama bin Laden himself opined that the withdrawal showed American weakness). I’m perfectly happy with a conclusion that supports any stance, but happier with one that leaves a conclusion to the viewer.  But Scott fixes on an ultimate theme: that battle is first and foremost about the man next to you. After two-and-a-half hours of white-knuckle survival with the soldiers, the message is more than delivered. But just in case we missed it, Bana says exactly that to Hartnett.  Clunk.

The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short Timers, is flawless. Marine privates Joker (Matthew Modine), Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onfrio) and others are trained with their class at Parris Island by their Lord and Master, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann (R. Lee. Ermey). Kubrick depicts the indoctrination and transformation of Marines in a manner that is tragi-comic, lyrical and, at the end of training, deadly. Penned by Kubrick, Hasford, and Michael Herr (Dispatches), the dialogue has the stamp of authenticity (Hasford and Ermey were Marines and Ermey, first hired as a technical advisor, had actually been a drill sergeant at Parris Island during the Vietnam war). The process of creating cohesion and toughness is brutal and efficient, and its unsparing nature produces effective warriors, but it also damages the fragile D’Onofrio.

The second half opens with a concise commentary on the problems of an occupying army, memorably introduced by the sultry voice of Nancy Sinatra. Despite such promise, the film becomes less engaging. Modine is sent to Vietnam as a correspondent for Star and Stripes and he wants desperately to get in “the shit.” He does, during the Tet Offensive, and what he sees is the hard killers from Parris, broken, unmoored and wreaking havoc. The film plays out as a series of barely connected set pieces, which is in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the first half.

I strongly recommend Matthew Modine’s diary and Herr’s Vanity Fair piece on Kubrick.