It's not difficult to see why "Apocalypse Now" assumed the status of ultimate anti-war film when it debuted in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola's surreal fictionalization of Vietnam appealed to us then because the time itself felt like a jungle filled with so many wrongs that a movie that lumped them all into one stretch and shone a purposefully distorted light on them made a kind of sense. It doesn't now. At least not when compared to a movie as brilliantly spare and uncompromisingly taut as Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker."
Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness follows U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) up the Nyung River toward Cambodia where his secret mission is to find and assassinate highly decorated, Green Beret Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone rogue and, presumably, insane. Willard's journey in the original movie was wild enough, hooking him and his tiny patrol boat crew up with a helicopter fleet whose men surf mid-battle, and whose commander, played by Robert Duval, orders the "Ride of the Valkyries" played from loud speakers as his choppers swoop into action. Coppola's reedited "Apocalypse Now: 2001 Redux" blankets 49 minutes onto the already lengthy first version, adding a mid-jungle fling between Willard and a French colonialist widow, and a scene where Playboy Bunnies have sex with some of Willard's crew while whinging that they were forced to do things that made them uncomfortable during magazine photo shoots. The overkill, literally and figuratively, continues until Willard reaches Kurtz's Angkor Wat-like stronghold where the colonel is treated like a god by the natives, and has taken to decapitating those he perceives as enemies, regardless of their nationality. By this point, all that Willard has witnessed on his trip up the river has stretched him to a similar point of madness, but with Kurtz's ultimate complicity, he completes his mission. The film ends with Willard turning his boat, minus all but one crew member, (the others have been killed in various horrific ways), back toward home, with Kurtz's last words, "the horror, the horror," echoing through his, and our, shell-shocked heads- as if we needed anything beyond "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" to sum up the craziness of that war.
"The Hurt Locker" is the polar opposite of "Apocalypse Now" for many reasons, not the least of which is the setting. Kathryn Bigelow shot the film close to the Iraq border in Jordan, and the movie is as dry, barren, and exposed as "Apocalypse Now" is leafy, hidden, and wet. Both settings feel hellish, but ironically, the fact that the enemy is most likely visible but still undetectable, makes "The Hurt Locker" even scarier than all of the potential sniper nests in Coppola's jungle might have made it. The same threat from guerillas, indistinguishable from civilians, existed in Vietnam, and is even depicted in an "Apocalypse Now" scene where a young girl tosses a grenade into a helicopter. But as with so many things in Copola's film, terrible reality is lost in overstated drama.
The mission of the members of "The Hurt Locker"'s Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squad is as exposed and straightforward as Capt. Willard's "Apocalypse Now" mission is secret and twisted. "The Hurt Locker" recounts the final 38 days in a 2004 tour of soldiers whose job is to dismantle improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from areas in and around Baghdad. As the film begins, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) have lost their respected team leader, and are troubled by the lack of caution and adherence to vital procedures shown by the leader's replacement, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). James is a cowboy, a risk-taker whose bomb-defusing feats, despite local brass approval, are more feared than lionized by those who must work with him. Still, there's something compelling about this guy who keeps pieces of the devices that he's defused, any of which might have killed him, in a locker under his bed, and his cohorts seem drawn to him as well as pissed off by him. It's the "I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away" push/pull of James's behavior, an analogy for the tasks the team has signed up to perform every day, that best communicates the relentless stress that this war incurs on those who are waging it.
And therein lie two major differences between this film/war and "Apocalypse Now" and Vietnam. Vietnam was not an all-volunteer conflict. If you were of a certain age and income bracket in the mid-60s to 1972, your ass was a good as gone to a place where no open aggression toward the U.S. had ever been displayed. The GIs of "The Hurt Locker" chose, perhaps ill-advisedly, to fight in the Middle East. Which is why it's interesting to me, as someone who sees herself as having been unduly judgmental of the men forced to fight in Vietnam, that "The Hurt Locker" evokes far more sympathy for its soldiers than all the foggy, flare-lit scenes in "Apocalypse Now" elicit for its troops. I can chalk at least part of this up to the fact that I've matured since 1979, and that I'm more capable of seeing the grays of a conflict that to me seemed purely black-and-white at the time. But I believe that the primary reason for that sympathy lies in the telling of the tale. There's no way that you can watch "The Hurt Locker" and not feel the ever-present potential for death, dismemberment, or the psychic equivalents thereof. And for all that you can imagine about the horrific situations depicted, you know that the reality must be a million times more overwhelming. "Apocalypse Now" sacrifices that gut level empathy to self-important storytelling and visual acrobatics. This doesn't mean that it's not a fascinating film to watch, it just isn't a very good war movie.
I also wonder if part of what makes "The Hurt Locker" so much more emotionally engaging is that it was made by a woman. Bigelow spotlights the desperate need for the Kevlar vest of machismo that these GIs must don every day. At night they go back to their barracks where they don't permit themselves to relax beyond getting drunk and seeing who can take the hardest slug to the gut. To care about anything- girlfriends, children in Iraq or at home, surviving- is to embrace the luxury of vulnerability that the setting and their goals there can ill afford. Of course the film's screenplay is by Mark Boal, but I wonder if a man could have directed a look through the same peephole into male bravado with the adroitness of Bigelow's touch. That said, the only weak moments of the film fall toward the end when James speaks of love to his uncomprehending infant son. The speech, which sounds way too "female", is also the only time in the movie that I noticed, and resented, a sound track, vs. the seemingly ever-present and swelling score of "Apocalypse Now."
I've chosen not to write about additional action and plot points in "The Hurt Locker" because they're better viewed than described, which is the hallmark of great filmmaking. Coppola is a great filmmaker as the christening scene in "The Godfather," where Michael Corleone exacts revenge on all those who have crossed his family, proves by defying adequate verbal description. Sadly, "Apocalypse Now" falls short of Coppola's own benchmark. The 70s epic is a rent-worthy excursion into our past, but "The Hurt Locker" offers a far more potent journey. It communicates "the horror, the horror" of war without having to speak the words.