After a lackluster experience with Full Metal Jacket I moved back a few years and watched Apocalypse Now (AN). I also tracked down Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about Francis Ford Coppola's filming experience of Apocalypse. As Tradgardmastare has suggested, the combination is certainly more than the sum of it's parts.
I was fourteen when AN was released and I can remember feeling shocked that anyone would make a film about such a taboo subject as the Vietnam war. At the same time the premise of seeing into a previously hidden world was thrilling. Sadly (for me), AN was baffling when it wasn't boring and I didn't see it again for thirty years.
Thank goodness my tastes have matured every so slightly in thirty years. AN has it's flaws to be sure, but it has scenes of amazing power and beauty. Coppola doesn't just frame an arresting image (cough cough..Kubrick...cough), he creates moments full of emotion, movement and intensity that are a privilege to watch. AN is often quoted. That may be in part because of some clever lines, but also because when we hear the quote we can remember so clearly the scene associated with it.
In terms of story AN has a road-trip structure composed of a series of encounters before a final climactic scene. As Hearts of Darkness describes it the process was hampered ever so slightly by the complete lack of plan as to what that final scene would be. Coppola was basically struggling to write a punchline to a joke that was halfway complete. For this reason it's easiest to enjoy the first three quarters of AN simply as a set of amazing scenes and encounters. If I was to stretch I might suggest that the films message was that ordinary people can do good or evil as a choice. The movie ends with Colonel Kurtz, who has stepped beyond good and evil by abandoning all pretense of method or plan. He simply exists, in a camp filled with rotting corpses and lost souls. Kurtz is intended to be the ultimate, well, ultimate something. Coppola may be saying that the only thing worse than evil is complete chaos.
Hearts of Darkness suggests that Marlon Brando essentially free associated all of Kurtz's lines and maybe movie's punchline is a huge dig at Brando. Brando's refusal to use any method or script is the ultimate evil in a film-maker's world, just as Kurtz's choatic realm is the ultimate evil in a military setting. How funny it would be if the ultimate purpose of this beautiful, crazy, multi-million dollar film was to call Brando a jerk!
It's fun to think about AN, and it's a tremendous experience to watch it. How does it relate to the project of understanding and gaming Vietnam? I think it was helpful, it conveyed much of the feel of the war even if some scenes were a bit surreal. Interestingly, as I write this I want to see it again, which is not a bad sign. Hearts of Darkness is not essential viewing but it's interesting enough and worth tracking down as well.