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Paramount Home Video presents
"There's a kind of powerful exhilaration in the face of losing everything."
DVD ReviewAs one of the great portraits of an artist at work, this is one of those making-of pieces that's arguably better than the project being made on screen—about the only rival I can think of for it is Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog making Fitzcarraldo, though in another medium Lillian Ross's Picture is more enduring than the movie she wrote about, John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage. Hearts of Darkness is of course a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, unquestionably the tipping point in the career of Francis Coppola—all the financial and professional capital he built up with the first two Godfather films were squandered in the Philippines, making an epic war picture about Vietnam, based on the nineteenth-century Joseph Conrad novella that also provides the name of this documentary.
On some level, you've got to admire Coppola's audacity—first in taking on such a titanic project, and later having the intestinal fortitude to turn over hours and hours of both audio and video footage to documentarians George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr. (Coppola took his family with him on the shoot, and in part to occupy and/or humor his wife Eleanor, he hired her to shoot behind-the-scenes footage that was supposed to be the basis of promotional puff pieces, not a descent into cinematic purgatory.) The film takes us through the roots of the project, noting in passing that not even Orson Welles could crack Heart of Darkness, and for his first film took a layup with Citizen Kane instead—later, Apocalypse Now was supposed to be a bit of guerrilla filmmaking from late '60s USC graduates like John Milius and George Lucas (both of whom are interviewed here), but couldn't get funded for fear that the plan to shoot the movie at the front of the Vietnam war would no doubt result in casualties.
Coppola seems to have wanted to document every possible angle—he seems as entranced with footage of himself as was John Lennon—which means that there's a trove of great stuff, from casting sessions on forward. And there's no doubt a strong self-destructive streak in a project like this—it's filmmaking on an insanely grand scale, as for instance when the production rents the military helicopters of the Filipino Army from Ferdinand Marcos, only to have them fly off routinely in the middle of the shoot to go to war with the rebels. There are great new interviews with many of the actors (especially Martin Sheen), and on-set footage that's extraordinary, with a baby-faced Larry Fishburne, among others, and Coppola collaborators who are usually safely ensconced on the other side of the camera, like cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis.
With the release of Apocalypse Now Redux, the documentary may have lost some of its juice—for most, for example, this was our first glimpse of the film's famous French plantation sequence, now available in its entirety. And no doubt for contractual reasons, the great unseen footage from the movie remains from the first week of the shoot, before Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel as Willard. But it's still fascinating, seeing how Coppola's love of the moment and the grand gesture nearly destroyed him and his movie—it's tough to make room for improv on a 200-day shoot, and though only Sheen ended up in the hospital after a heart attack, you can see the crazed strain that the project put on anyone involved in it for any length of time. (Gliding past all that, certainly, is the monstrously fat and woefully underprepared Marlon Brando.) And if you're a fan of the director and have read about the Godfather shoot, you detect a pattern: script problems, budget problems, shooting schedule problems—it's like Coppola is an anxiety addict, and he's got to gin up some controversy to get his blood flowing, to get him to do his best work. Sometimes, obviously, the results are glorious; sometimes not so much; and then there are the raft of works for hire. As a portrait of an artist whose ambition is greater than his grasp, this documentary is unparalleled.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The transfer is an adequate one—the documentary was originally produced for Showtime, so it's right at home on your television, even if the Apocalypse footage looks far superior on its own DVD release.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: As with the image transfer, the audio is adequate, if occasionally a bit thin and tinny.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Eleanor and Francis Coppola
Packaging: Amaray with slipcase
Extras Review: Co-director George Hickenlooper has been very public in complaining about being shut out of the DVD release of the documentary, and you can see why—it feels very much like Team Coppola is trying to co-opt this to support the brand. Francis and Eleanor provide a commentary track; they're candid, though it seems a tad sketchy that husband and wife were recorded separately, and you almost sense in the editing an attempt to set them off against one another. It's a fine track, but doesn't hold a candle to Coppola's Godfather tracks. And what's billed as a Coda (01h:06m:10s) is in fact a making-of piece about Youth Without Youth, Coppola's first feature in a decade—the DVD release is pegged to the theatrical release of that film, making this feel at times like the longest trailer ever produced, even if the Coppolas are more forthcoming both about the creative process and about the passage of time than most folks you find on DVD supplements.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsA magnificent and candid look at a filmmaker unafraid to swing for the fences, knowing full well that the biggest rewards require the greatest risks. An absolutely necessary companion piece to Apocalypse Now, and a canny bit of documentary filmmaking in its own right.
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