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Face-Off: Zero Dark Thirty vs. Apocalypse Now

01.17.2013by: Paul Huffman
In last weeks Face-Off, we paid tribute to the late David R. Ellis in a match up between Snakes on a Plane and The Final Destination. Snakes ultimately one the final verdict, and our readers happened to agree.

This week, the theme is search and destroy. In these two films, the US have targeted men they have deemed evil enough to track down and exterminate. These two films are the recent Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty and the Francis Ford Coppola classic Apocalypse Now. Kathryn Bigelow's film is brutal yet a straight realistic approach to a decades worth of a search for Osama Bin Laden, while Coppola's opus is more of a stylized and surreal at times mind trip of a search for a rogue colonel. Both works of art, but from different times. So which was better? Let's discuss.
Story
A harrowing journey that chronicles the ten years it took to track down and kill terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Although we know what is in the history books, the tension in this film works as most of the duration is gathering the intelligence on just where the sumbi*ch is hiding. Any story that deals with the necessity in compromising your morals for the greater good is always a win in my book, and this film delivers that. To get us ready for the big payoff, Zero Dark Thirty confronts us with what we'd be willing to do to get the job done.
An Army special ops officer is recruited to track down and kill a colonel who overtime has gained a cracked mind and gone rogue. He accepts, and witnesses the horrors of the war he's landed himself in, he loses comrades, and almost his sanity as he travels through a Cambodian river before finally finding his target who is now ruling over his own troops in neutral territory. By the time he finds Kurtz, we are taken on a journey with everything that contributed to turning this man insane. It's like the film was daring us not to lose our own heads.
Hero
Maya, a headstrong, stubborn woman who will not let her mission fail. She is determined, but it is in her eyes we find the emotional core of the film as well. She is a brilliant character study, in the sense that she knows the necessary lengths she needs to go to find this terrorist, but her humanity lets her feel conflict. What more could you ask for in a hero folks? An intelligent woman who knows and is ready to get the job done, but is after all human...and we see the effects that this journey has had on her. Brilliant performance by Chastain, and in this character she has been able to solidify herself as one of the best actresses around today.
When we meet Ben Willard he appears to already be a broken man. Our first glimpse of him he is drinking and trashes his room, my typical Friday night. Anyway, despite all of this the man has a sense of duty and ultimately accepts the mission he was picked for. It understandable given all the things Willard goes through that he'll be mentally and emotionally thrashed, it amazed me that when the time came he managed to go through with his mission. After all that, the possibility of falling for Kurtz' philosophical ideas was plausible. But nope, Willard must succeed.
Villain
Like Kurtz, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is a presence...we know the evil he represents, we know the activities he's backed and we are desperate for him to be stopped. All that said, Osama isn't a physical presence we feed on his legend until he is eventually found and dealt with. From a story standpoint, he was only a formidable villain only because of what we know about him leading up to what happened. What does bin Laden have that Brando's Kurtz didn't have? He was a very real life threat, he was the very real version of a man who was able to rally others to his cause.
Before we meet Kurtz we discover that he was a decorated officer who was well on the way to receiving more credentials than he already had, and the mystery behind what caused him to throw all that away was a brilliantly appealing. When we do finally meet the man, his compound is surrounded by decapitated heads, and if he sees you as a threat we see how quick he is to chop your damn head off too. Kurtz is compelling, he eventually releases Willard and explains to him where he is coming from and praises the Vietcong he now surrounds himself with. Because of these newly adopted ideals, the US wants him stopped. The mans mind was indeed just not there, another brilliant turn from Brando.
Response
January 13 marked a worldwide gross of $35,322,444 and has received critical acclaim while being met with its criticisms for an alleged pro-torture stance. So many critics praised Kathryn Bigelow's flare behind the camera, and Jessica Chastain's commanding performance. The film was applauded for its ability to confront of us with a few moral quandaries, and being an overall intelligent portrayal of how all of this happened. The film earned an overall rating of 93% fresh. The film has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review, ""Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience." Spot on Roger spot on. Other critics praise the film the same way by commending its way of deconstructing the soul and portraying the terror of Vietnam. It has also sparked debate on whether the film is pro-war or anti-war, I don't think its either I think it just...is. The film holds an overall approval rating of 99% and earned about $150 million in the box office.
Overall
Zero Dark Thirty works on a few different levels. It was intelligently crafted, it had heart, it had characters compelling enough to keep you enthralled throughout a movie that mostly a game of cat and mouse. And then the shit hit the fan with the SEALS finally finding their man and getting the job done in what was an awesome sequence, but what I loved more was the sense of relief on the part of Maya and the vibe we get from here that she is not sure what she does with her life now. It is a film that earns the accolades and the praise its been receiving thus far, kudos to all involved. Especially Bigelow's way of crafting a story and Chastain bringing her A game.
Apocalypse Now was a brilliant film, almost enough said. But I of course have to say more. The shots were beautiful, the war scenes were brutal, the cast was perfection, and it did the same thing Zero Dark Thirty did in confronting us with our humanity...only it seemed to do that throughout the whole movie. Memorable and iconic lines abound, and its legacy as possibly the greatest war film to date is not a fluke folks. It was surreal journey and every time I see it, it sticks with me for at least a week. To think of this film not ultimately winning this match up..."oh, the horror."
Apocalypse Now
There you have it folks, Zero Dark Thirty was indeed worthy...but when it comes to Apocalypse Now, this classic just can not be beat. Both have the right elements there...story, characters, and atmosphere. Where do you stand folks?

If you have an idea that you'd like to see in a future FACE OFF column, feel free to shoot an email to me at paulhuffman@joblo.com with your ideas and some ideas for the critique to base your ideas off. Thank you and in the meantime...

Which war film was your favorite?
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