Apocalypse Now / Da 5 Bloods

The first note I jotted down while watching Apocalypse Now, in the opening minute while music and helicopters and explosions woozily began to fill a previously quiet jungle canopy, was: “oh unfortunately this is a Movie.” I felt unfortunate about it because I could tell I was going to spend the next two and a half hours in the waves of that war movie push & pull—is it so disturbing that it can be none other than anti-war? or is it so beautiful that it can be none other than pro-war? 

Francois Truffaut, reportedly, perhaps apocryphally, once remarked that all movies about war are inherently pro-war. It’s something I’ve considered. Something I think about a lot with this is the idea of grandness. If an anti-war movie is small and drab, I suspect it’s easier for the horror it is depicting to be universally seen as a condemnation of conflict. I think the problem is in bigness. If a war movie is depicting horror at scale, if it expresses its anti-war sentiments through the grandiosity of the atrocities, in the number of dead bodies or the size of the bombs, I suspect it’s easier for it to slip into serving to inspire instead of instilling dread. Apocalypse Now portrays the Vietnam War as a meaningless and cruel exercise in essentially the torture of a people, which in turn tortured many of the people sent to commit these actions. And, some contemporary American soldiers have said that they were shown this movie to get them excited for war before being shipped out to Iraq. I was really harrowed by Apocalypse Now, but I also completely understand why those anecdotes are out there. It is a very grand movie.

Things I knew about Apocalypse Now in advance: that it was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the story of a journey up the Congo River to find a mad Englishman that I’d read in our colonialism unit in high school; and that Brando was in it, eventually. Things I did not pay any attention to before hitting play: any of the rest of the cast list. When we first saw his face right-side up, my brain, completely forgetting all relevant first names, asked me with polite confusion: “Is that…Mister Sheen?” It was. Except for, as I learned later, when it was actually his brother Joe Estevez. Let me tell you, if you are the kind of person who loves wild production tales and do not already know the saga that is this one, boy can I recommend it! It is just chockablock full of outlandishness and disaster!

I’m really interested by the extreme troubles they had behind the scenes, because the product of all of this is a very surreal and upsetting film, and I do wonder…would it have been as much what it is without being itself born of an experience drawn out and traumatic? Yet astonishingly, all the changes and scrapped plans hasn’t resulted in a film that feels disjointed to me. For most of its considerable runtime, it just flows along. Sorta like a nightmare, sorta like a river. I never once doubted it as a movie—until the end, when a certain part of my brain (not the Sheens-recognizing part) suddenly went hey wait a minute. This is the part of my brain that was created in high school English class, where you do things like read Heart of Darkness. This is the part of my brain that analyzes narratives.

The ending of Apocalypse Now is wrong. That’s a bold statement for me to make to Mr. Coppola, but given that he seems to have had maybe half a dozen endings over the course of both production and post, I think he might at least acknowledge that’s a possibility. Heart of Darkness is an ingenious literary inspiration for a movie about the American side of the Vietnam War, I completely support this artistically and thematically. The movie expects you are likely to know that story, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that at the end, we do find this Kurtz at his compound at the end of the river, amidst the most surreal moments yet. It’s very powerful! And then, I think this movie shifts more fully into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a Vietnam War inflection then where it had been, as mostly about the Vietnam War with a Heart of Darkness inflection. And then it just stays there, for a while. My last note reads: “we spent soooo long in the Temple of Doom though.”

So, ‘Nam film homework completed, I then watched Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods, which references Apocalypse Now in the setting of a highly disquieting & apparently real bar in Vietnam themed on Coppola’s movie, at least one flashback helicopter shot, a riverboat sequence set to Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, and length. 

To begin: I do not believe that any fictional work about a terrible thing must be a somber dense drama in order to be a morally justifiable project. I think there is space and even need for a variety of tones and approaches in engaging with the gruesome things that haunt humanity. And I also do not believe that any fictional work about something multifaceted has to be about all of those facets. If Spike Lee wants to make a chatty adventure movie about the experiences of a group of Black veterans of the Vietnam War, I am not going to say that’s fine but make sure it’s also about the Vietnamese experience of the American War, too. His movie doesn’t have to be about everything, and I think he is allowed to use this deadly conflict to examine issues from it that are specific to the group of people he’s interested in, setting the other ones aside. 

But I do want him to make sure that the limited appearances of the people that his movie is not about, do not fall into racist caricatures. And I don’t think he did a great job with that. And I think it is a bit morally dubious to make a movie today, in full knowledge that what happened in Vietnam was a horror of American interventionism, that seems to be trying to “win the war this time”—exactly as some of the characters in this film describe the Rambo series early on, before they too proceed to go about bloodily shooting a bunch more nameless Vietnamese people. Again. 

Those are my main intellectual issues with Da 5 Bloods. However, messy thoughts and problematic politics are features of many great movies that still have lasting artistic legacies and cultural worth due to being so interesting and well-made as pieces of cinema. C.f. Lawrence of Arabia last month, c.f. Apocalypse Now, just above! Actually I think it could be argued that the amount craft with which something is put together is, justifiably or not, a really big part of what can take it from being regrettable to being a “rich text.” It all depends on how you choose to mount a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, you know?

And, regrettably…I do not think Da 5 Bloods was very well mounted. I am so sorry to be so bold to Mr. Lee this time! But oh man, what happened here! The script, the blocking, the editing—all I found bizarrely clumsy. Just as an example, from the first scene so as not to spoil anything: the four remaining Bloods are all arriving simultaneously at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, and are embracing in the lobby; then from a shot of the four men standing together remembering their fallen brother Norman, we awkwardly cut to one of them now suddenly standing several yards away at the check-in counter, where he reaches into his bag and pulls out a photograph of young Norman, and announces as he walks back, as if he just discovered it: “Hey, look what I found.” What, no. No, what? Spike, you are way too good for something this amateurish! Every movie is allowed a few clunky moments, for sure, but the problem is when they’re frequent, and these were just too frequent for me. 

And so, I just wasn’t able to get on board with Da 5 Bloods. But good on Jonathan Majors getting a featured role in this starry a project, and congratulations in advance to Delroy Lindo for his well-earned Oscar nomination.

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