American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In his book The Films of My Life, the French director Francois Truffaut makes a curious statement. He used to believe, he says, that a successful film had to simultaneously express "an idea of the world and an idea of cinema." But now, he writes: "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse."
It may seem strange to begin a review of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" with those words, but consider them for a moment and they apply perfectly to this sprawling film. The critics who have rejected Coppola's film mostly did so on Truffaut's earlier grounds: They have arguments with the ideas about the world and the war in "Apocalypse Now," or they disagree with the very idea of a film that cost $31 million to make and was then carted all over the world by a filmmaker still uncertain whether he has the right ending.
That "other" film on the screen -- the one we debate because of its ideas, not its images -- is the one that has caused so much controversy about "Apocalypse Now." We have all read that Coppola took as his inspiration the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, and that he turned Conrad's journey up the Congo into a metaphor for another journey up a jungle river, into the heart of the Vietnam War. We've all read Coppola's grandiose statements (the most memorable: "This isn't a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam."). We've heard that Marlon Brando was paid $1 million for his closing scenes, and that Coppola gambled his personal fortune to finish the film, and, heaven help us, we've even read a journal by the director's wife in which she discloses her husband's ravings and infidelities.
But all such considerations are far from the reasons why "Apocalypse Now" is a good and important film -- a masterpiece, I believe. Years and years from now, when Coppola's budget and his problems have long been forgotten, "Apocalypse" will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking -- of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.