David Halberstam on "Apocalypse Now"

The Vietnam reporter and author of "The Best and the Brightest" says that Coppola's epic has only gotten better with time.

Published August 3, 2001 7:59PM (EDT)

On a rainy night last month, in a screening room in New York, David Halberstam and several other former Vietnam correspondents and "people connected to the war," as Halberstam put it, gathered with director Francis Ford Coppola to see what sort of difference 21 years and 53 minutes of new footage had made to the original film. Those in the room included Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on staff with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and later leaked the Pentagon Papers, news anchors Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, and reporters such as Kevin Buckley, who wrote about Vietnam for Newsweek.

Halberstam was in good company. The former Vietnam correspondent had spent two years there himself, early on in 1962 and 1963 and again for a stint in 1967, covering the war for the New York Times. Later, he wrote his classic book "The Best and the Brightest," an explication of events leading to Vietnam as well as an indictment of McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and the other elite decision makers who led America into the war. He would follow that book with several others, some of which touched on Vietnam, including "The Making of a Quagmire."

He's about ready to release his latest book, "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals," in September. I spoke with Halberstam over the phone about his reaction to the new cut of the movie earlier this week.

You've called "Apocalypse Now" the best film about Vietnam.

Before I saw the "Redux" I would have put "Platoon" ahead of it. But I think seeing it again, having 20 years of time, much of the allegorical stuff works better. I exempt the bullshit stuff at the end with Marlon Brando because I think it diminishes the film a little bit. Because it's about Brando, always Brando and his enormous narcissism, which is not about American narcissism but Brandonian narcissism. But I think it's more brilliant.

And I think the other thing of course is the [contrast of "Apocalypse Now" with the] low landscape of every other movie these days, particularly the large-budget movies. It's an age where the big movie has been back-to-back "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor" and those movies. This is a movie of extraordinary creative ambition. Whatever else you think about Coppola and what he did -- did he go crazy there? Was it the perfect screenplay? Did he lose control of his own movie? My God, did he put himself artistically and financially completely at risk? -- it's in great contrast to what we see today. Look at "Pearl Harbor." "Pearl Harbor" is nearly a blood libel against the event. The people who made that movie should be ashamed of themselves. Then you see "Apocalypse" and you see what real filmmaking really is.

Why is it that after 20 years that allegory seems sharper?

A couple of years ago, when Robert McNamara's really dreadful book ["In Retrospect"] came out, I had gone over to Charlie Rose. (I wasn't on with the dreaded McNamara because he won't be on with us.) There was a question: "Why does Vietnam hang on us so heavily, long after, 20 years after, the last troops left?" I had said, not even thinking about it, that it was the second Civil War, us against us, and the Vietnamese were bystanders. I think that if you had that belated epiphany, and then you see "Apocalypse Now," I think that theme runs through it, the idea that it's us against us and this is what we've done to ourselves and to these other people. I think that you get it more now. I think 20 to 25 years ago, you would have thought it was us against the Vietnamese. Later, it's "What does this tell us about us?"

The additional scenes help. The helicopter scene is the best scene in the movie, the single best scene of any Vietnam movie. And he's extended that scene and made it even better. I mean, [Robert] Duvall is so good in that scene. The cinematography, the helicopters coming over the horizon, the Wagnerian stuff -- all that stuff is really brilliant. And that, and of course the two other scenes, the French rubber plantation, the Playboy bunny stuff -- I just think it's extraordinary. And I do think that what's important is the lack of ["Titanic"-style] ambition in any real sense. It doesn't seem to be "look how big I can go with this."

Really? Legendarily, Coppola was over there on his last cent, with all these people, and working against monsoon seasons. I thought one of the things that we were supposed to recognize was the crazed ambition of the film.

Maybe the virus of madness that drove the architects of the war finally seeped into him as well. I can't vouch for that. But I think that this film is just extraordinary. I came away very, very impressed, just more so than ever.

In a companion piece in Salon by Allen Barra, he asserts that the film was never really about the war, that it was really about filmmaking and '70s cinema and independence and so on. Do you agree? Or is the film something you really can't divorce from the experience of Vietnam?

I think we all have our Vietnams. Everybody has his own Vietnam: Those who went have many, many different Vietnams; those who didn't go have their Vietnams. My sense is that in both the literal and allegorical way that it is really good. It's good in the allegorical way, and it's occasionally brilliant in the literal sense. Three of the main thrusts are just extraordinary.

First, the helicopter scene. Second, I think the scene where they tell him that he's going upriver, the three-star lieutenant general [played by G.D. Spradlin] -- Jesus Christ, he's good. If I were Coppola's Vietnam advisor at that point I would have said, "Switch him. Take that guy and make him the guy you find at the end of the journey instead of Brando." Because he's a lot scarier than Brando. He's really a symbol of what the war does to us, where the morality evens out. That scene, where they give [Martin] Sheen his orders to terminate with extreme prejudice -- that's a great scene. And then the sort of bizarre, zonked-out sense, the dark, picaresque sense of the river trip: "Who's in charge here? I thought you were."

The people I saw it with who went to Vietnam were rather impressed by the film. And I was. I got scared again during the helicopter scene. I was in Vietnam when the first Hueys -- those are those armed helicopters -- came into the country. In early '63 my friend was the first commander of the first squadron, Ivan Slavich. I used to be able to get aboard whenever I wanted because one of his jobs was to sell Army aviation, which the Air Corps didn't want. I saw the helicopter attack scene and I was scared again. That's all I can tell you.

Do you recognize any of the characters in the film from your own time in Vietnam?

Do I recognize Duvall? I don't really recognize Duvall, but there are guys like that -- the kind of guy who's been told early on to be charismatic, to strut, to whatever. Believe me, there are guys like that. Did I say, "Oh, that is X or Y?" No. There was a general in the American 9th Division in the Mekong Delta who went through that heavily populated area like a butcher. And there were some pretty awful things there -- terminating a lot of the Vietnamese, people probably friendlier to the other side, with extreme prejudice. There was a lot of stuff ...

You were over there for how long?

I did roughly just under two years. Starting in the very early days in '62 and then going back in '67 for a couple of months. There were different generations of Vietnam reporters, depending on what age they were when they went, what point in the war, what was the level of cynicism. Were they the earlier generation that was sort of the wine-and-beer generation, or the later that used recreational substances? Was it optimistic in the minds of a lot of field officers when you went there, or was it cynical later in the war -- '67, '68, '69? There are a lot of different Vietnams there.

I'm really moved now, more moved 20 years later. I thought "Platoon" gave a great sense of what it was like to be a grunt there. ["Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now" are] both wonderful films. This is a more original, iconoclastic film. This is more about America; "Platoon" is more about Vietnam. In "Apocalypse Now," the Vietnamese are nearly bystanders in the film.

What do you think of the other Vietnam movies?

You have to understand that the most successful one was "Rambo"-- a dreadful, paranoiac movie by someone who fed on all the paranoia. It's the kind of movie that gets kids killed. Here's [Sylvester] Stallone, who sat out the war teaching at a girl's school in Switzerland. (I'm sure he did that heroically.) And he does this movie designed to inflame paranoia: that we were screwed by politicians and journalists. And it's really dumb and racist. One guy with great deltoid muscles can take out 3,000 North Vietnamese infantry, even though it's one of the great infantries in the world. And in the past, others who had underestimated it, like the French commanders and the American commanders, paid a high price. And what they failed to do, old Stallone cinematically can do. You have to understand that that is the benchmark, that and "The Green Berets" -- again, an extraordinarily stupid, jingoistic movie in which the sun sets in the east over the South China Sea, which may be all you need to know. There's a very interesting movie that's very little known by Ingmar Bergman called "Shame." No one knows about it but it's very good because it's really what happens to the people in the country, although it's done with Caucasians.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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