Considered in 1979 one of the great follies of all time — over budget, overlong, overstated — Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to look at the Vietnam War in terms of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has come full circle (in various forms) to emerge as possibly the most significant film ever made about war. That sounds like an overstatement, and it probably is, but I can’t think of a better film on the subject. And its greatness may in fact stem from the film’s creation as a grandiose exercise in folly (could there be a better approach to the Vietnam War?).
As Coppola himself said of the project, “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.” Perhaps that’s why the film manages to catch a genuine whiff of madness — it was actually there. The much denigrated (in 1979) screenplay now seems strangely coherent, even if the war itself remains the surreal “bad trip” it always was. The surrealism isn’t accidental; Coppola didn’t want a film about Vietnam, he wanted one that duplicated the experience of it — as closely as possible. For better or worse, time and narrative film has caught up with Coppola’s vision. It’s a vision that’s as shattering today — maybe more so — as it was then.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke