Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

“Hearts of Darkness,” Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's documentary, is pieced together from home-movie footage and tape recording by Francis Ford Coppola's wife, Eleanor, who published a book on the making of the film, “Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now.”

Eleanor began shooting footage for a standard behind-the-scenes film. However, it turned out to be a very intimate portrait of the director's tortures and creative process. Her materials had been held in Zoetrope storage for more than 11 years, because Apocalypse Now was still an unfinished business for the director. A cult work, Apocalypse Now is a film people never stop talking about–part of the interest was putting the legend to rest.

The film shows Coppola as a director launching the production of an ill adequately prepared film, a genius pushing his luck to the limit. At least subliminally, it suggests that Coppola was intent on self-immolation, going out in a Wagnerian operatic style. Coming off a string of three masterpieces (including The Godfather movies), it was as if Coppola was to prove that he had earned the right to go berserk on the set. To keep the production afloat, Coppola put his money where his mouth was by borrowing against all his personal possessions.

In the Philippines jungles, the film crew was large, with too much equipment, and they had access to too much money–little by little they went insane. Coppola equates the movie-making experience with the journey into spiritual torment in Joseph Conrad's book, Heart of Darkness, upon which Apocalypse Now was loosely based; wife Eleanor sees it as a metaphor.

Some important issues missing from the documentary (which are included in her book) concern Coppola's infidelity, which obviously had bearing on him as the filmmaker. The feature also fails to raise the question of whether the end result–good film or bad–makes any difference at all.

“Apocalypse Now” was great and made Coppola a hero, in contrast to other extravaganzas like Michael Cimino's “Heaven's Gate,” but “Heart of Darkness” never convinces us that the craziness behind the camera really helped make Apocalypse Now a great film. The docu weaves some comparisons between Coppola and Kurtz through the director's frustrations during the extensive shoot.

The real, more interesting and riveting story is not how the making of the film imitated its contents, but how in post-production all those problems were overcome through masterful editing and clear thinking.

“Hearts of Darkness” is a revisionist liberal response to the Vietnam War to the 1980s conservative revisions, “Rambo” and POW-rescue films: Coppola goes back to Vietnam and loses, thus making closure to the war for a liberal audience.