When the Ancient of Days fashioned Martin Sheen, he used as his model the archangel Gabriel, the empathic spirit of truth — who records not men’s deeds but their heart’s desires; and who hears the cries of humanity, yet is powerless to assist us. US Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Sheen), the protagonist of the movie Apocalypse Now, is himself a moviegoer, one who is strapped into a front-row seat in a theater of war, unable to shut his eyes to the horror, the horror unspooling before them.
Though Coppola’s movie is deeply fatalistic, it is at the same time a morality play about the competing virtues of civilized sympathy (caring enough about the pain of others to do something about it) and savage empathy (actually feeling the pain of others, yet doing nothing about it). The blocking in this short, dimly lit scene juxtaposes the sympathy of the supine, all-too-civilized Chef (Frederic Forrest) with the empathy of the squatting, savage Willard.
In the existential jungle, empathy makes a man fitter for survival. But at what price?