On his commentary, Francis Ford Coppola ruminates. ” For me…filmmaking is sort of like asking a question, and the making of the film and finishing of the film is where you get the answer.” Pause, then the sucker punch: ”Now that’s a terrifying thing to tell a financier.” Not to mention anyone who followed the director into the jungles of the Philippines while he crafted — against every obstacle God, man, and he himself could throw up — the cracked masterpiece that is Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier is a misnomer, actually, since this two-disc set doesn’t include Hearts of Darkness, the essential 1991 documentary about the filming of Coppola’s surreal 1979 Vietnam War epic. Yet the set is revelatory in so many ways that it qualifies as a must-own. Both the original theatrical cut and 2001’s expanded, three-and-a-half-hour Apocalypse Now Redux are here, with optional onscreen markers to show where the extra footage was dropped in and with Coppola explaining what, where, how, and why.
Featurettes about the film’s herculean production offer bizarre details. Coppola at one point planned to show the movie in one theater, in the middle of the country, for 10 years; he told his co-screenwriter, John Milius, that if he didn’t live to finish it, ”George [Lucas] will take over.” All the extras are similarly big and bent. How about a 17-minute tone poem of location footage set to Marlon Brando’s reading of T.S. Eliot’s ”The Hollow Men”? Or an ”A/V Club” section for tech mouth-breathers that includes a primer on Dolby 5.1 (with diagrams), an article by late electronic music pioneer Bob Moog, and a FAQ explaining why the film’s aspect ratio here is different from the theatrical versions? (Because cinematographer Vittorio Storaro wanted it that way, so there.)
Yet it’s Coppola’s commentary that’s Dossier’s trump card, almost more so than the films themselves. (Watch Redux if you’re coming to Apocalypse for the first time, by the way; not all the additions hold their weight, but the French plantation sequence is crucial.) Whether he’s noting with awe that Akira Kurosawa kibitzed on the editing or marveling in chagrin at the head games Brando never stopped playing, Coppola gives a master class in how to survive one’s own ambitions. This is the sound of a great director looking back at folly with lucidity, disbelief, and a deserved amount of pride. Mistakes are admitted, sheer panic confessed to, and yet somehow Coppola still won’t acknowledge what remains plain to see: that the aimless final sequences with Brando sap the movie of its early brilliance. ”I went with my conviction,” the director says, and if that’s an excuse, it’s the only one worth respecting.