rancis Ford Coppola's last great movie, Apocalypse Now, is finally
receiving its pound of flesh. Critics have rightly proclaimed
the newly expanded version, Apocalypse Now Redux, a masterpiece.
Some have even called it Coppola's best movie. Considering that
Coppola was also the director of Godfather I and II,
this is saying a great deal indeed.
But when Apocalypse Now was originally released in 1979,
it received a tepid response from critics and moviegoers. This
is partly due to the fact that, as Coppola admitted, his long
anticipated "Vietnam film" wasn't strictly about Vietnam.
Before 1980, the war was still fresh in people's minds, and Coppola's
movie, which focused more on one insane renegade colonel, baffled
audiences and failed to satisfy expectations. (That, and the fact
that in 1979 it was still shocking to see Marlon Brando the size
of a thyroidal sea cow.)
For Coppola, though, the American experience in Vietnam resembled
nothing so much as the "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil
of a rapacious and pitiless folly" Joseph
Conrad encountered in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the
century, and later portrayed in his nightmarish masterpiece, Heart
of Darkness. So for his Vietnam film, Coppola simply transplanted
Conrad's story to Southeast Asia. That this worked so well is
as much testament to the timelessness of Conrad's art as it is
to Coppola's extraordinary talents.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad's alter-ego, Marlow, assumes
command of a steamer traveling up the Congo River. He's headed
for a trading post under the command of a mysterious Mr. Kurtz,
who, it's been rumored, is hoarding a fortune in ivory. Marlow's
mission is to retrieve it. He soon learns, though, that Kurtz
has amassed his huge stockpile by strange, unorthodox means, including,
oh, setting himself up as a god to the natives. He tells them
what to do; they carry out his every wish. He even participates
enthusiastically in "savage" rites, and may, it's hinted,
have become a cannibal.
Kurtz has clearly stepped outside the bounds of European society
and allied himself with a moral code of an entirely different
...Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various
lusts, that there was something wanting in him....Whether he
knew of this deficiency himself I can't say....But the wilderness
had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance
for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him
things about himself which he did not know, things of which
he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude
— and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed
loudly within him because he was hollow at the core...
For Coppola, the moral chaos personified by Mr. Kurtz bore a
striking resemblance to the ethical quagmire of the Vietnam War,
which destroyed the lives of so many of his generation and permanently
altered the American self-conception. But for Conrad and Coppola
both, their primary interest was not the specifics of the Belgian
conduct in the Congo or the American disaster in Vietnam. The
lesson of Heart of Darkness is that the potential for such
moral decay exists in every human heart.
According to Albert J. Guerard "Conrad believes, with the
greatest moralists, that we must know evil — our own capacities
for evil — before we can be capable of good; that we must descend
into the pit before we can see the stars." But isn't it equally
important to recognize evil when it manifests in the world around
us, and to call a spade a spade? Certainly. And isn't it also
true that today there is no more obvious manifestation of rapacious
greed than those contemporary colonialists, the multinationals?
Who would argue that at the center of every modern multinational
is a Kurtz-like heart, mired in moral anarchy.
Ironically, the most malevolent of them all is also the most
trusted. I am referring, of course, to the world's most perfidious
regime, the Disney corporation. Today, the devil wears mouse ears.
For those who balk that the company that created Goofy bears
any resemblance to Conrad's Congo or Coppola's Vietnam remember
this: Disney owns ABC and is, therefore, also responsible for
But Disney is, of course, far more venal than atrocious
TV. As avowed Disney-hater Carl Hiaasen explains in Team
Rodent: How Disney Devours the World: "Disney is so good
at being good that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient
and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly
entertaining that it's unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure
Disney is Marcia
Brady with a billion-dollar bank account and a taste for blood.
Speaking of blood, in his celebrated history of the Belgian Congo,
Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild recounts in shocking detail
the horrifying methods the Belgians employed in their efforts
to extract as much wealth as possible from their sole colony.
In the pursuit of ivory, Belgians murdered and brutalized ten
million Congolese. Even by twentieth century standards, the Congolese
genocide stands out as particularly heinous.
Disney could have taught the Belgians a thing or two. Since
Michael Eisner became CEO, Disney has been just as devoted to
profit as despotic old King Leopold. Yet Disney is much more intelligent
in their methods.
The Belgians were just plain stupid. Violent theft is a flawed
business plan (not to mention bad PR). Once you've murdered someone
and taken their goods, that's it. There goes that revenue
source. Disney has a much smarter formula: go after society's
weakest members — the young and give them a taste for good
clean fun, Disney style. And make them pay for it. Soon you have
a billion little money machines. And eventually they will breed
and replenish your revenue source. Disney is committed to developing
renewable resources. Pull the same trick in countless countries
around the world and soon you'll be pulling in...let's see, last
I checked it was over $20 billion per year.
The fact is, Disney is just not as harmless as it seems. "So
what," you say. "Who cares if Disney makes a lot of
money? Doesn't that just mean that they offer a really good product?
Doesn't Disney bring joy to billions of people worldwide every
year?" Maybe so, but folks were pretty happy with Hitler
there for a while too until they realized what he was up
So what is Disney up to? What exactly is their business? It's
more than just cartoons, isn't it? What Disney sells, what Disney
does better than any other entity the world has ever known, is
package, market, and sell sentimentality.
Jung once derided sentimentality as "unfelt feeling."
As deep as Danielle
Steele and as authentic as wood paneling in a trailer park,
sentimentality is the strip mall of emotions. Dostoyevsky put
it best when he famously described the four
Karamozov brothers' poisonous father: "He was sentimental.
He was wicked and sentimental."
There is a correlation between sentimentality and the
darker corners of the human heart. Hitler himself (yeah, yeah,
again with the Hitler) was said to be a sentimental man.
So how could a company that is built on sentimentality, that
is systematically converting the world to an ever cheaper emotional
life, be considered anything but evil? It's no mistake that Disney
is represented by a sanitized image of a filthy rodent. Yes, strip
away the cute ears, the suspenders, and Annette Funicello, and
Disney is nothing but a ruthless, ravenous rat.
Which, of course, brings us to the rat king himself, Michael
"Mr. Kurtz" Eisner. If King Leopold was the black heart
at the center of the Congo nightmare, King Eisner is the vacant
soul at the helm of the Disney juggernaut. For God's sake. When
Michael Eisner was a producer at Paramount, he was responsible
for Happy Days. He fell in love with the show because he
identified so strongly with Potsie. And if you ever wanted to
know who to blame for Robin Williams, look no further. High on
the success of Happy Days Eisner orchestrated a few spin-offs,
including Mork and Mindy. I have no idea what that says
about the man, but it can't be good.
Michael Eisner is responsible for the double-pronged strategy
that spearheaded the greatest corporate comeback in the history
of American business. After Michael Eisner became CEO, Disney
became 1) extraordinarily aggressive in expanding its holdings
and marketing its brand, and 2) cheap as hell. In the past decade,
Disney has become notorious for wanting everything, and wanting
it for free. And they seemed to have a knack for getting it.
Of course when it came to his own salary, Eisner expected the
company to open its purse strings wider than Dr. Laura's mouth.
According to Kim Masters in her book The
Keys to the Kingdom, when Eisner first agreed to assume command
of Disney, the corporation was in such bad shape that "the
company was asking Disneyland workers to be good corporate 'citizens'
and help Disney survive by accepting slashed benefits and a 17
percent wage cut over the next three years."
Meanwhile, Eisner asked for and got a compensation
package that set new standards for corporate inequity. Though
his base salary was a mere $750,000, Eisner also received "2
percent of any growth in net above 9 percent and more than two
million shares of Disney stock at $14.359 each." Grab a calculator.
That's a lot.
Granted, in financial terms Disney's gamble on Eisner turned
out to be justified. When he first became CEO, Eisner ran the
company in partnership with Frank Wells. They turned out to be
a very profitable team, orchestrating, as I've said, one of the
greatest corporate comebacks in American history. Wells was Kissinger
to Eisner's Nixon. Eisner provided the inspiration. Wells provided
intelligence and a couple of feet on the ground. But sadly, in
1994 Wells was suddenly killed in a helicopter accident and Eisner
was left to run things alone.
As anyone who remembers Paul McCartney's post-Lennon stint with
Wings knows, one half of a great team can be just that. Alone
at the top, Eisner made himself a sort of demigod of Disney. Increasingly
isolated and paranoid he eliminated all threats to his power and
surrounded himself with relatively weak people. Soon Eisner was
wandering the halls of the White House muttering to the pictures.
But unlike Nixon, Eisner hasn't resigned. And impeachment doesn't
seem imminent. Maybe Eisner's eventual fate will more closely
resemble Mr. Kurtz's. Toward the end, though his ambitions soared
ever higher, Kurtz, fevered and malarial, gradually withered away
in both body and soul.
But what's of greater consequence than Michael Eisner's fate
is what will happen to his empire when he leaves?
Journalist Michela Wrong has just published a brilliant but disturbing
book, which will likely become required reading for anyone interested
in the Congo: In
the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living On the Brink of Disaster in
Mobutu's Congo. Wrong argues that the Belgians are directly
responsible for the the political, economic, and moral chaos that
has plagued their former colony since they pulled out in 1960.
While they controlled the country, the Belgians assumed absolute
authority. Though they built a physical infrastructure that was
the envy of other African nations, they didn't give the Africans
themselves the skills necessary to manage it. By running the Congo
as a plutocracy and then deserting the country virtually overnight,
the Belgians left their former colony with no one capable of stepping
in to run things. According to Wrong, these conditions were directly
responsible for the rise of the most despotic African dictator
of the twentieth century, one created in the mold the Belgians
left behind. Sese Seko Mobutu stole so much wealth from his country
a new term was required to describe his style of government. The
term "kleptocracy" has since been used to describe rapacious
governments around the world, but the term was invented especially
for Mobutu. Yes, the Belgians were bad. But in many ways Mobutu
So what happens when rogue emperor Michael Eisner leaves Disney
(or dies a lingering malarial death), creating a power vacuum
in the world's most powerful entertainment company? Slobodan Milosevic
and Anne Geddes join forces to conquer the world?
The horror. The horror.