Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about the shooting of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), is the most spectacular inside look ever offered into the ineffable process of filmmaking. Codirected by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, the movie, which is playing theatrically in selected theaters (it was first seen last year on Showtime), is an assemblage of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor; recent interviews with Coppola, his associates, and the principal actors; and on-the-set audiotape recordings Eleanor Coppola made of her husband without his knowledge. (You haven’t heard self-doubt until you’ve listened to Coppola declare — with definitive gloom — that the movie he’s shooting is an utter failure.) Hearts of Darkness is a comedy, a disaster movie, a profound study in ego, obsession, and personal tyranny, and a spellbinding glimpse into the making of a spellbinding epic.
It wasn’t simply the physical scale of Apocalypse Now or the relentless pile-up of disasters (typhoons, exploding budget, Martin Sheen’s heart attack) that made the film seem such a mad undertaking. It was the way Coppola entered the Philippine jungles half intent on losing control, on pushing himself out onto an artistic/financial ledge he couldn’t escape except by finishing the film.
As Apocalypse begins shooting, Coppola figures that his only way of touching the surreal moral vertigo of Vietnam will be to abandon the controlled arena of Hollywood filmmaking, leaving his movie open to every possible current of intuition, danger, and fear. The logistics alone are surreal — they mock any attempt at a rational production schedule. In the midst of the Wagnerian helicopter-attack sequence, Coppola has to stop filming so that the choppers he’s rented from Ferdinand Marcos’ army can go off and fight the leftist rebels.
As the shooting progresses, the movie offers a dozen galvanizing minidramas. There’s the astonishing day that Coppola films Sheen’s drunken breakdown (the silent scream that opens Apocalypse Now). There’s Sheen’s near-fatal coronary, a tragedy that boomerangs into farce when Coppola, high on desperation and power, announces that if his leading man dies, it will only be true when he, the great director, says so. And there’s the fascinating spectacle of Coppola, after more than 200 days of shooting, attempting to patch together an ending from the improvisations of an outrageously blasé Marlon Brando.
Coppola essentially tore up John Milius’ script and wrote the movie as he went along. At times, this leaves him open to ridicule: There he is at the typewriter, trying to bang out the ending like some nightmare term paper. Yet as Hearts of Darkness goes on, we begin to perceive that Coppola’s willingness to incorporate whatever came his way — even the drug-induced musings of his actors — became integral to the movie he was making. The greatness of Apocalypse Now is its hallucinatory texture of chaos, death, and sensory overload. Whatever its flaws, it remains the most powerful movie ever made about war as madness. Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how Coppola was able to achieve an atmosphere of dread-ridden lyricism by turning his film into a de facto documentary about the spirit in which it was made.
The movie’s rich, elliptical portrait of Coppola keeps prompting us to ask: Is he a reckless megalomaniac or a true artistic hero? The answer, I believe, is both. Coppola’s capacity for delusion and for hyperactive promotional rhetoric are certainly awe-inspiring; in the course of the movie, he envisions Apocalypse Now as everything from the first film destined to win a Nobel Prize to a schlock extravaganza in the tradition of Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno).
At the same time, it’s clear he could never have mustered the will and the daily rounds of imagination necessary to complete the project if he hadn’t been such an ego-driven artist-dictator. In the end, he had to be a little crazy to get something like Apocalypse Now on screen. Hearts of Darkness is about a brand of moviemaking fever that hearkens all the way back to D.W. Griffith. Through Coppola, the film reveals the spirit — still alive and kicking — that put the dream in the dream factory. A