Sunday, July 9, 2017

Film Review: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

"Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse"
*** (out of ****)

Francis Ford Coppola experiences "the horror" of filmmaking in the documentary, "Hearts of Darkness" (1991).

I would imagine to the general public the idea of filmmaking might be a simple one. How difficult can it be to direct a movie? You basically tell everyone what to do and follow a script. To an outsider it may sound like fun. Movies are glamorous, right? You get to socialize with beautiful actors and actresses. You'll make a lot of money. You can become famous. People will ask for your autograph. You can even win an Academy Award. It all sounds like a pretty sweet deal, doesn't it?

Of course, anyone that has ever shot a movie will tell you, you are wrong. That is not what filmmaking is. The great French director, Francois Truffaut, won an Academy Award for "Day For Night" (1974), a movie about working on a movie set with Mr. Truffaut playing a director as he deals with major casting decisions to minor problems like a cat not properly drinking milk from a saucer. It created a romanticized view of filmmaking. Fax Bahr's documentary sets the record straight.

"Hearts of Darkness" documents the making of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), a movie generally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all-time but one noted for its notorious production shoot, which lasted more than 200 days and went millions of dollars over budget. During production Mr. Coppola fired and re-cast his lead actor, a monsoon destroyed sets, his new lead actor suffered a heart attack, other actors failed to learn their lines and issues with the Philippine government, which was engaged in a civil war, delayed shooting. All of which lead Mr. Coppola to doubt whether the film would ever be completed.

We suspect this is what it is truly like to make a movie. It is hard work. A constant struggle. An endless day of decision making and compromise with moments when it feels as if you are flying by the seat of your pants. Within those circumstances it is not difficult to believe a director would begin to question their talent. How and when will the movie end?

Great directors, like Francis Ford Coppola, often blend their personal life into their work. There is a element of autobiography in their films, directors like Mr. Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, usually draw on experiences from their childhood as inspiration. Watching "Hearts of Darkness" however, I have never seen a more perfect example of art imitating life. Has a filmmaker ever mirrored so closely the experiences of the lead character in a movie? It is a reality that does not escape Mr. Coppola.

If you have never seen "Apocalypse Now", it is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", written in 1899, exploring themes of imperialism and racism. In Mr. Coppola's film we follow Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a special operations officer ordered to find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated officer who has gone rogue in Cambodia and leads his own military, and "terminate" him. Willard travels upriver, through the jungle of Vietnam searching for Kurtz. The movie is about a journey. The physical journey of find Kurtz and deeper ones involving the journey into one's mind, self discovery. To Coppola, the journey was a metaphor for the Vietnam War.

In order to make the film, Mr. Coppola and his crew, travel to the Philippines and face the harsh elements. Coppola begins to go slightly mad out in the wilderness. He openly speaks of shooting himself, after his has put his own money up to produce the movie, and is afraid the film will turn out to be a disaster. Mr. Coppola goes on his own journey to self discovery. He is a different man by the time the film is completed.

"Hearts of Darkness" uses footage shot by Mr. Coppola's wife, Eleanor, during the production shoot of "Apocalypse Now", originally intended for PR purposes, and video recordings between herself and Mr. Coppola. Eleanor also narrates the movie, reading from her diary, giving audiences an insider look at what goes on during the making of a film.

That is the strong suite of "Hearts of Darkness". We really learn a lot about what it takes to make a movie and hear to utmost personal thoughts of Mr. Coppola as he tries to deal with the situation at hand. Through the course of events Mr. Coppola comes across as a risk taker and a highly intelligent filmmaker. A man who always had a strategy, trying to work around all of the obstacles thrown in his direction.

These moments are countered with modern footage of the cast and crew (Mr. Sheen, Denise Hopper, Robert Duvall and Mr. Coppola himself) sharing their experiences on set, looking back on the film. Through the contemporary interviews, we learn quite a bit, such as George Lucas (who is also interviewed) was originally set to direct the movie. We learn Martin Sheen, at 36 years old, felt he was not in good shape to withstand the shooting schedule of the movie. We learn some of the actors were on drugs during shooting and many scenes were improvised.

Yet for all of these interesting moments and details learned about "Apocalypse Now", I'm still reluctant to call "Hearts of Darkness" a masterpiece. It feels too academic. Too much like a PBS special. It provides a lot of facts but lacks emotion. I wasn't involved, sitting as an activate participant, as I am when watching other documentaries by Michael Moore or Errol Morris.

"Hearts of Darkness" naturally makes a perfect companion piece to "Apocalypse Now". After watching "Hearts of Darkness", you truly come to appreciate "Apocalypse Now" a bit more and respect Mr. Coppola. You sit and watch a movie and never realize what goes into making it. "Hearts of Darkness" was filled with as much drama as "Apocalypse Now".

The documentary went on to win two Primetime Emmys, for directing and editing, and a National Board of Review award for best documentary. The late film critic, Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune and the television show "Siskel & Ebert", called it the best movie of 1991.

You can also read my review published on the The Big Picture website here.