A three-hour version of Apocalypse Now was screened as a "work in progress" at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and met with prolonged applause. At the subsequent press conference, Coppola criticized the media for attacking him and the production during their problems filming in the Philippines and famously uttered, "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane", and "My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam". The filmmaker upset newspaper critic Rex Reed who reportedly stormed out of the conference. Apocalypse Now won the Palme d'Or for best film along with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum - a decision that was reportedly greeted with "some boos and jeers from the audience".
Apocalypse Now performed well at the box office when it opened in August 1979. The film initially opened in one theater in New York City, Toronto, and Hollywood, grossing USD $322,489 in the first five days. It ran exclusively in these three locations for four weeks before opening in an additional 12 theaters on October 3, 1979 and then several hundred the following week. The film grossed over $78 million domestically with a worldwide total of approximately $150 million.
The film was re-released on August 28, 1987 in six cities to capitalize on the success of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and other Vietnam War movies. New 70mm prints were shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, and Cincinnati — cities where the film did financially well in 1979. The film was given the same kind of release as the exclusive engagement in 1979 with no logo or credits and audiences were given a printed program.
Upon its release, Apocalypse Now received near-universal critical acclaim. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin wrote, "as a noble use of the medium and as a tireless expression of national anguish, it towers over everything that has been attempted by an American filmmaker in a very long time".
Ebert added Coppola's film to his list of The Great Movies, stating: "Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover".
Other reviews were less positive; Frank Rich in Time said: "While much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty".
Various commentators have debated whether Apocalypse Now is an anti-war or pro-war film. Some commentators' evidence of the film's anti-war message include the purposeless brutality of the war, the absence of military leadership, and the imagery of machinery destroying nature. Advocates of the film's pro-war stance, however, view these same elements as a glorification of war and the assertion of American supremacy. According to Frank Tomasulo, “the U.S. foisting its culture on Vietnam,” including the destruction of a village so that soldiers could surf, affirms the film's pro-war message. Additionally, a Marine named Anthony Swofford recounted how his platoon watched Apocalypse Now before being sent to Iraq in 1990 in order to get excited for war. According to Coppola, the film may be considered anti-war, but is even more anti-lie: “...the fact that a culture can lie about what's really going on in warfare, that people are being brutalized, tortured, maimed, and killed, and somehow present this as moral is what horrifies me, and perpetuates the possibility of war”.
In May 2011, a newly restored digital print of Apocalypse Now was released in UK cinemas, distributed by Optimum Releasing. Total Film magazine gave the film a five-star review, stating: "This is the original cut rather than the 2001 ‘Redux’ (be gone, jarring French plantation interlude!), digitally restored to such heights you can, indeed, get a nose full of the napalm."
Rotten Tomatoes ranked the film 99% "Certified Fresh" with an average rating of 8.9/10, and the stated consensus that "Francis Ford Coppola's haunting, hallucinatory Vietnam war epic is cinema at its most audacious and visionary".
Today, the movie is widely regarded by many as a masterpiece of the New Hollywood era, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest films of all time. Roger Ebert considered it to be the finest film on the Vietnam war and included it on his list for the 2002 Sight and Sound poll for the greatest movie of all time. It is on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies list at number 28, but it dropped two spots to number 30 on their 10th anniversary list. Kilgore's quote, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," written by Milius, was number 12 on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes list and was also voted the greatest movie speech of all time in a 2004 poll. It is listed at number 7 on Empire 's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Entertainment Weekly ranked Apocalypse Now as having one of the "10 Best Surfing Scenes" in cinema.
In 1981, shortly after introduction of martial law in Poland, a British-Polish photographer Chris Niedenthal took an iconic photo presenting a SKOT APC in front of Moscow Cinema (Kino Moskwa) with the film's poster behind it.
In 2002, Sight and Sound magazine polled several critics to name the best film of the last 25 years and Apocalypse Now was named number one. It was also listed as the second best war film by viewers on Channel 4's 100 Greatest War Films and was the second rated war movie of all time based on the Movifone list (after Schindler's List) and the IMDb War movie list (after The Longest Day). It is ranked number 1 on Channel 4's 50 Films to See Before You Die. In a 2004 poll of UK film fans, Blockbuster listed Kilgore's eulogy to napalm as the best movie speech. The helicopter attack scene with the Ride of the Valkyries soundtrack was chosen as the most memorable film scene ever by Empire magazine (although the same track was used earlier in 1915 to similar effect in the score written to accompany the silent film The Birth of a Nation). This scene is recalled in one of the last acts of the 2012 video game Far Cry 3 as the song is played while the character shoots from a helicopter.
In 2009, the London Film Critics' Circle voted Apocalypse Now the best movie of the last 30 years.
In August 2009, the head of the German Financial Regulator told the Bundestag Finance Committee that the failure of the "terrible" Depfa Bank, which was completely supervised by its Irish equivalent, lead to the collapse of its German parent which forced Berlin to bail it out at a cost of €102 billion. The committee was told that the alternative was a run on German banks and the eventual collapse of the European finance system and "You would have woken up on Monday morning in the film Apocalypse Now"
In 2011, actor Charlie Sheen, son of Martin Sheen, started playing clips from the film on his live tour and played the film in its entirety during post-show parties. One of Charlie Sheen's films, the 1993 comedy Hot Shots! Part Deux, includes a brief scene in which Charlie is riding a boat up a river in Iraq while on a rescue mission and passes Martin, as Captain Willard, going the other way. As they pass, each man shouts to the other "I loved you in Wall Street!", referring to the 1987 film that had featured both of them. Additionally, the promotional material for Hot Shots! Part Deux included a mockumentary that aired on HBO titled Hearts of Hot Shots! Part Deux—A Filmmaker's Apology, in parody of the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, about the making of Apocalypse Now.